It’s safe to say that Seattle transit advocates are uncertain about Mayor Jenny Durkan’s commitment to transit. The fate of the Center City Connector continues to grow murkier. The Mayor told a large, powerful coalition of CCC advocates to talk to the hand. Several transit and safe streets projects throughout Seattle have been delayed or canceled (although others have proceeded on schedule). Funding shortfalls shrank and delayed RapidRide projects, while leaving expensive auto-centered projects like the Lander bridge unaffected. One Center City lost many of its transit priority ideas in becoming Imagine Downtown. Throughout all of this, the mayor’s office has not said much about transit, except occasionally to point out its numerical necessity in the most general terms.
The mayor, though, has continued to talk up one transportation proposal: congestion pricing. Often called “decongestion pricing” by advocates who want to clarify its goal, the policy charges car drivers to enter central city areas, with higher charges during the most crowded hours. (Other policies such as HOT lanes and variable bridge/tunnel tolls are also forms of congestion pricing, but aren’t what the mayor is proposing.) Central city congestion pricing has been implemented in London, Singapore, and Stockholm, but nowhere in the United States to date. Among U.S. cities, only New York has seriously considered it, so far without action.
While the city remains in the early stages of designing a proposal, Seattle’s congestion pricing areas would likely include downtown, Belltown, the Denny Triangle, South Lake Union, and parts of First Hill—that is, most of the city’s largest job centers. Both private and rideshare cars would be charged. Peak-hour commuters accessing those areas by car would pay significantly more than they do today, while the charges would not affect commuters arriving by transit, bike, or foot. For those who are able to use non-car modes, the program would provide an excellent incentive to use those modes more of the time. If it’s high enough, the charge should reduce congestion and delays for drivers, including both commuters and delivery drivers.
There’s always a catch to policy solutions, and the catch with congestion pricing is that its impact would fall hardest on lower- and middle-income commuters from far-flung areas that are not well-served by transit. As housing in the city rapidly becomes more expensive, that category includes an increasing number of the central city’s service and clerical workers. There are a variety of solutions proposed to address the impact, including rebates or discounts for lower-income drivers; employer-based subsidies similar to those currently offered for transit passes; and programs to help employers change employees’ hours so they commute at less congested, less expensive times. But these are not ideal. The first two dampen the effectiveness of congestion pricing by allowing more drivers to bypass it, while the last may have undesired effects on employer productivity and employees’ personal lives.
The best, least harmful solution is to make it easy for as many workers as possible to use transit.
London, Stockholm, and Singapore all have world-class comprehensive transit systems. Even so, London devoted the entirety of revenues from its congestion charge to further improvement of the city’s transport network, funding major subway, rail, and bus improvements, together with a new network of bike facilities. Stockholm also initially invested the entirety of revenues in transit, but was then forced to shift revenue to roads by a political revolt in the suburbs and exurbs. By contrast, Seattle’s system is still in early stages of growth. Sound Transit will bring grade-separated transit to many core communities over the next two decades. But many areas will continue relying on bus connections to access the rail network, while others will use buses exclusively. Still more areas—often those with the most reasonable housing prices—aren’t served by transit at all.
By the high standards of the cities that have congestion pricing, our buses are infrequent, unreliable, and often slow. If congestion pricing is implemented with the current transit network, many of our workers won’t have the options that are available to communities in London or Singapore. Congestion pricing should go hand-in-hand with major improvements in the transit network, especially the bus network. Revenues should fund improvements throughout the region in the mold of those initially planned for RapidRide+: dedicated streetcar/bus lanes (including at major intersections), off-board fare collection, transit priority streets within the congestion area, improved frequency, and longer hours of service.
Without better transit, the congestion charge begins to look less like an attempt to help everyone get around faster, and more like a device to reserve street space for the wealthiest drivers. Mayor Durkan should fight that perception by demonstrating a new commitment to real transit improvements starting today, and then by including larger improvements as a foundational part of the congestion pricing proposal she eventually issues.