5th Avenue, SounderBruce, Flickr

The congestion pricing study attempted to apply objective criteria to various options. Regardless of the policy merits, it’s a good bet that the choice will be the one with a political coalition to pass it. Who wins and who loses from such a plan?

For bus riders, pricing is overwhelmingly positive. Fewer cars means buses will be faster, and usually the fee is used to add transit. Perhaps the only downside is more crowded vehicles.

For bicyclists and pedestrians, it’s unclear. The zone would have lower car volumes but higher speeds. But if many people are diverted to bikes, numbers increase safety.

That’s a good chunk of who’s going downtown, but the attitudes of drivers are going to be important. For pricing to work, someone has to be deterred off the road, and those people aren’t going to be happy with the deterrence.

However, there are drivers whose time is literally valuable: they could be earning money instead of being stuck (like taxi drivers), or they face serious penalties for being late, or an employer pays them to sit in traffic. If advocates can show them that congestion pricing is about making their lives easier, rather than just grabbing more money for pet projects, that may be decisive.

Another strategy is to slice the driving community a different way: charging just taxi drivers, as one of the options in the report does. My sense is that most people will be in favor of taxing other people off the streets.

The last possibility is for at least five councilmembers and the Mayor to stick to their principles and bet on doing the right thing. As the study says, most congestion pricing schemes prove to be popular once they’ve been in place for a while. A little courage could put Seattle’s transportation system in a much better place.

50 Replies to “What’s the coalition for congestion pricing?”

  1. The “safety in numbers” phenomenon for bikes may not be true, it may just reflect better infrastructure. https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/06/protected-bike-lanes-safe-street-design-bicycle-road-safety/590722/

    Congestion downtown definitely does slow down bikes though. Intersections get blocked, and the places without dedicated infrastructure (like Blanchard St) require sometimes unsafe, and always slow, maneuvering if you are going to get through.

    I have a theory that the mayor is planning to backfill bike master plan funding with congestion pricing, since sdot is currently planning for zero funding after 2022.

    1. “I have a theory that the mayor is planning to backfill bike master plan funding with congestion pricing, since sdot is currently planning for zero funding after 2022.”

      We’re making bike lanes dependent on a funding source that’s unlikely to be approved? Why does that sound so Pugetopolis and car-privileged?

    2. The safety-in-numbers phenomenon, which is typically understood as the empirical association between # of cyclists and # of injury bike crashes per cyclist in a given location, is pretty clearly real. The argument is just whether it reflects safer infrastructure drawing more cyclists or behavioral change — more cautious drivers better at seeing cyclists where there are more of then — or both.

      The study cited in that citylab article isn’t exactly looking at that — at least if I’m reading it right, it looks like it’s modeling bike fatalities and severe injuries by location, adjusting for census block group resident count and mode share. This is a different statistical quantity than injuries per cyclist in relation to cyclists.

  2. Pricing is hard to sell because people don’t buy the premise that it will be effective in reducing traffic and congestion (until after it’s implemented, when they often change their mind). Asking people if they’re in favor of pricing is like asking whether they support taxes.

    I think the answer is the same as with taxes: people will support it based on whether they value what it buys. People also will judge the equity of it depending on what it buys. So the discussion of coalitions needs to factor in the question of how the money is spent. Make sure it’s something that is valuable and has broad support, especially to the people affected by it.

    My suggestion: have a concrete proposal before even beginning to engage people in whether they support the concept. They will only increase their opposition every time it comes up until the terms are known.

    1. Responding to earlier comment: building bike infrastructure would not have any positive value for building support for congestion pricing. Bicyclists will support pricing in any case (because it’s another car-related annoyance they won’t have to pay for). But for the car-drivers affected by the pricing, spending it on bike facilities may be one of the most divisive uses they can imagine. Getting the light rail alternatives Seattle supports to West Seattle and Ballard would be far better choices to build support, perhaps along with sidewalks in the part of the city where they’re missing and pavement replacement on the streets falling apart.

      1. There may be a way around this: coupling mandatory bike registration with any congestion pricing proposal. A proportional fee for an annual or biennial cycle sticker — a practice in use in many cities — might be a way to calm the perceptions among drivers by showing that cyclists will be paying into the system that is providing all the city’s transportation facilities.

  3. Is the objective to raise money for transportation projects or to make the downtown core more livable?

    I think once we decide what we are trying to achieve, a solution will be self-evident. ,

    1. The objective is unclear and doesn’t seem to be well thought-out. Urbanists would argue for better non-car mobility, a more pleasant downtown environment, and separating the cars that really need to be there (or their owners are rich) from the cars that are just there because their owners are lazy and selfish. But the city has repeatedly watered down previous attempts to address these: 3rd Ave has no red paint or effective enforcement, the bike network is repeatedly delayed, Aurora and 45th have only a few queue jumps while all the suburbs have full BAT lanes on 99, etc. The underlying reason behind all these watering-downs is to prioritize car thoroughput and preserve street parking spaces. “Prioritizing car throughout” means keeping the lines at stoplights and freeway entrances short. And that seems to be the priority for congestion pricing too: too keep the lines short for cars that pay the toll. Not to improve the conditions for non-drivers. Some cities dedicate all their toll money to transit. Seattle has not committed to that.

      If the money is dedicated to transit, I think it’s only fair to spend it downtown or on downtown-accessing projects or downtown-adjacent neighborhoods, not on Ballard or West Seattle tunnels. Otherwise you’ll get people saying, “I’m paying the toll but it benefits parts of the city i don’t go to.”

      1. I feel that congestion pricing is simply red meat for transit advocates to distract us from a total lack of progress by the Durkan Administration on transit. The city council sucks too.

      2. Devil’s Advocate here: if Ballard and West Seattle Link are not “downtown accessing” projects, I’m not sure what counts. Although there are plenty of better things to spend that kind of money on–like missing sidewalks and finally implementing the basic bike network.

      3. Sorry B, but the West Seattle and Ballard projects are already funded — as aerial. The extra money not only would not really improve access from the ST3 description, but the tunneling will delay the opening date (in West Seattle’s case at least four years) because tunnels always take years longer to build.

        Had the current preferred alternative included a diagonal elevator or funicular to First Hill, you would have a good point — but it doesn’t.

      4. “if Ballard and West Seattle Link are not “downtown accessing” projects, I’m not sure what counts.”

        Improvements on those lines in downtown or near downtown would count, but more expensive tunnels or stations at the ends would not. Elevated can run at full speed so there’s no speed advantage of a tunnel; the tunnels are only to avoid aesthetic impacts and property takings. The one place where a tunnel would be a performance advantage is the Ship Canal crossing to avoid a moveable bridge, because a moveable bridge is the same as a level crossing, which is usually associated with surface alignments but in this case occurs in the 70′ bridge option (but not the 130′ bridge like Aurora). Also, improvements in the middle benefit more people such as those crossing downtown or going to SODO or SLU, while improvements at the ends benefit only the people at the ends. That’s where I suggested that downtown commuters may be peeved to pay for improvements in Ballard and West Seattle. While ST’s and Metro’s taxes benefit only certain areas, everyone pays the tax uniformly, whereas in this case only drivers downtown would pay the toll, so they may be more peeved at benefitting other areas.

  4. “someone has to be deterred off the road, and those people aren’t going to be happy with the deterrence.”
    They don’t have to be deterred off the road, just of that road. Some businesses will move or choose not to locate DT. Some people will be happy to not have to commute into DT. It’s unlikely in the current economic environment that this will hurt the City as there are plenty of other places within Seattle for them to go. And we’ve seen lots of examples of large compainies moving back and forth across Lake Washington. It could be a win win as the businesses that land in the DT core are less auto oriented and attract a more metropolitan corporate culture.

    1. The city said that the number of car commutes downtown hasn’t increased in spite of the massive growth in SLU and the Denny Triangle. My observation is that downtown congestion isn’t much different than before the SLU takeoff or before Uber/Lyft, so I don’t see why we all of a sudden need congestion pricing now, and I’m troubled that the city doesn’t have a clear vision of what it’s trying to accomplish, like a hammer in search of a nail or a streetcar in search of a gullible neighborhood.

      The one bit of new congestion I’ve seen is a line on Pine Street from 6th or Melrose Avenue down past 3rd to presumably 1st. That started with the temporary viaduct closures last year and again with the permanent closure. It’s not every day but it happens sometimes on a Saturday or Sunday when it never used to. The first time it happened I asked the bus driver why and he said he thought it was due to the viaduct closure and the turns onto 1st backup up. I was skeptical because why would the viaduct drivers be on 1st rather than spread out to I-5 and other streets or staying home? But it has happened several times, and always when the viaduct is closed, so that may be it. But I haven’t seen much differences in traffic on other downtown streets.

  5. I view the congestion pricing concepts as an inherent shifting of development mitigation from developers to users. If there are projects to improve pedestrian, bicycle or transit systems, that cost should somewhat be borne by that 40-story developer who isn’t paying anything for these systems. Suburban development pay for transportation mitigation’s all the time; why not ask Seattle developers to do the same thing?

    1. It’s important to distinguish that many cities with congestion pricing are not allowing significant growth like Seattle is. That includes both London and Stockholm districts. There, future development a big part of the challenge.

      1. There’s probably close to 100 construction cranes within a 1/2 hour walk of the Tower of London, so I’m not sure what spot it is they are “not allowing significant growth.” In fact, it’s a great example of what cities in the USA should be doing to ease the housing shortage.

      2. The Tower of London is on the eastern border of the congestion pricing zone. Everything to the east of that — including the Canary Wharf area — is beyond the zone.

    2. Why should developers pay them? They’re doing a public good in providing housing and office space for the people who live and work in them. One of a city’s responsibilities is providing housing for everyone, and this capitalist mechanism is the way American cities have chosen to do it. If anybody should pay infrastruture fees it’s the people who live and work in those buildings, or better yet the entire population, because imposing the fees on those residents just makes it more costly for them compared to everyone else and exacerbates an unaffordable-housing situation. And the developers often pass the cost on to their residents, which has the same negative effect. The developers are just the builders. The entire city benefits in having infill development and density rather than spreading out to car-dependent sprawl, so everybody should pay the cost of additional infrastucture. In any case, compact infrastructure is less expensive than sprawling infrastructure spread out over several miles. If you live in an inner city you’re heavily subsidizing the infrastructure of people who live in Maple Valley and Bonney Lake and Renton. Infill development is better than that.

    3. “Suburban development pay for transportation mitigation’s all the time”

      That’s part of the problem. First, the suburbs won’t allow density on the 3/4 of their land that’s single-family so it’s all squeezed into a few places. That creates a housing shortage and drives up the price. Then they have all these height and setback and parking requirements that limit how much housing they can build in the remaining areas. The parking requirement forces forces developers to buy excess land or build structured parking at $50+K per parking space. Sometimes developers calculate that rents won’t be high enough to cover the costs and they won’t build — even though the rent is already higher than the majority can afford. Then the cities slap linkage fees on top of that. The net result is that the residents of those buildings pay through the nose while the people sitting smugly in their single-family houses pay nothing, so they get an extraordinary privilege and subsidy. It’s kind of like California’s Prop 13 where people with more square feet of land pay much less taxes than people in newer buildings who have less land, a kind of aristocracy.

      1. the suburbs won’t allow density on the 3/4 of their land that’s single-family so it’s all squeezed into a few places.
        And isn’t that the point? The alternative is multifamily spread out in random places that will never be able to have effective transit service.

        That creates a housing shortage and drives up the price.
        What drives up the price is people buying a $500k house, tearing it down and building a $1M house. FAR requirements, set backs, etc. at least help mitigate this type of 100% increase in prices while preserving the character of the neighbor. BTW, the much mallined “character” in large part determines the cost of living there.

        developers calculate that rents won’t be high enough to cover the costs and they won’t build
        Not doing that results in a “bubble”. When the bubble bursts we’ve seen the result is a devastating loss of jobs, foreclosures and empty holes left in the ground where useful buildings once stood.

        people sitting smugly in their single-family houses pay nothing
        You know that’s not true. My property taxes are more than the mortgage payment on our first home. Bellevue attaches a storm water management fee to the water bill. We’ve paid as much as $800 for two months. The fee is calculated base on lot size with no allowance for use. A one acre parking lot pays the same rate per gallon on domestic water use as a one acre lot that’s absorbing run off rather than contributing to it. People sitting “smugly” on the bus “get an extraordinary privilege and subsidy. “

      2. “What drives up the price is people buying a $500k house, tearing it down and building a $1M house.”

        They wouldn’t be able to get $1M for it if there weren’t a housing shortage. They’d only be able to get $500K tops. Houses in Bellevue were only $300K in 2000. They didn’t magically become twice as high quality.

      3. People aren’t “getting” $1M they are paying $500k for the lot and building million dollar McMansions. There’s no net difference in the housing supply. There is market demand for upscale housing. People selling at $500k have decided to cash in on their investment. They’re not being displaced, they simple have decided that with a mere 1/2 million dollars they can obtain housing that better reflects their values; which might be retiring and traveling the country in an RV. Like I said, if you want to limit the inflation, gentrification, destruction of neighborhood character… whatever label you choose, FAR limits, set backs, development fees, etc. are all tools that work toward that goal.

      4. The point is that if we’d nipped the housing shortage in the bud when prices first started accelerating in 2003, they wouldn’t be replacing a $500K house with a $1M house; they’d be replacing a $300K house with a $500K house. Inflation has been 2% or less for practically the whole time since 2003.

      5. So, what is your economic plan that would have prevented the bubble and 2009 collapse? Surely, with the benefit of hindsight you have a detailed solution that promises economic prosperity, saves the planet and checks the social equity box.

      6. My argument is supply and demand. If we didn’t have such restrictive zoning then the construction during the bubble wouldn’t have affected rents and home prices as much. Developers’ costs would have gone down because most of the cost is buying land. Downtown Lynnwood, Federal Way, and Totem Lake could have upzoned a decade earlier and then they could have gotten some of that bubble investment.

        Having zoning that allows housing to expand as the population does is just common sense; it makes cities and regions more resilient. Chicago, Houston, and Dallas also had population increases but they haven’t had the runaway rent/price increases because they allow housing to expand to meet demand.

        After the 1970s oil crisis Europe invested heavily in transit, walkable land use, and in the Netherlands bicycle infrastructure. That made them more resilient to foreign oil cartels, recessions, and climate change. The US went the opposite way with SUVs and car-dependent sprawl; that made us more vulnerable, with a lifestyle that depends on high energy inputs.

        The recession lowered rents and house prices so it was a net benefit to renters/buyers in this narrow issue. During the recovery prices escalated even faster because we reached the end of the slack in the market: the run-down mid-century buildings were completely full and could no longer absorb more lower-income people and bargain hunters. That’s when rents really took off. It’s the same reason supermarket lines suddenly go from 2-3 people to six people and counting; it’s not that a crowd walks to the checkout all at once; it’s that four people overwhelm the capacity of the checkout stands and then people stack up. That’s exactly what happened when the old-apartment slack in the housing market filled up. Seattle’s population went down in the mid 60s and didn’t reach its former peak until the 2000s; that’s consistent with old units being low-priced in the 80s and 90s and then accelerating in the 00s and then going into hyperdrive in the 10s.

        As for economic prosperity, saving the planet, and checking the social equity box, those are much larger issues; it’s like throwing the kitchen sink in.

      7. Mike, you live in an alternate reality. The reason there was a bubble was it was to easy for developers to build. End of story.

      8. The recovery prices were exacerbated by homeowners becoming afraid to sell, or unable to due to an underwater mortgage. That put a sharp limit on supply even after buyers started coming back.

        Rents/prices rise when more renters/buyers compete for a unit, and fall when fewer people do.

  6. I feel like the looming major deficiency Downtown is with pedestrians much more than bicyclists. Link stations need more escalators, elevators and pathways to handle future loads and connect new platforms. Downtown Seattle is also very steep, and easier ways to up and down hills is needed as a matter of public policy — escalators, elevators, funiculars, skywalks, pedestrian tunnels.

    However, no one in leadership has dared to study and then propose improvements at the reshaping scale of the bicycle plan. As a pedestrian/ transit rider, I feel like My needs go ignored while bicyclists get huge concessions for their wishes.

    1. bike lane improvements make sidewalks safer, I think we need to focus on benefiting both at the expense of standard car lanes.

      1. That seems to be like saying that more traffic lanes make bicycling safer. The indirect logic seems rather dubious.

      2. What huge concessions? A cycletrack on Broadway and 2nd Avenue is not huge; it’s a drop in the bucket, and it’s much less expensive than either the Link stations themselves or the additional escalators, elevators, and pathways you’re talking about.

      3. I’d suspect that on a per user or maybe even a per-user-mile basis, pedestrian improvements could pencil out as more cost-effective than the continued conversion of car lanes for bicycles. The Seattle mindset loves to sketch out projects, but rarely does the revealing demand analysis work to determine their actual usefulness. While than sometimes produces great success, it produces failures too.

    2. In the end, the main obstacle to both pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is the practice of spending most of the money on car projects…then using the rest of the money when the costs of those car projects goes up. The Governor’s “climate crisis” transportation budget is, what, 96% car focused? smh

      Still, I don’t know that Seattle has a comprehensive pedestrian improvement plan in the same sense that it has a basic bike network plan. And if Seattle doesn’t, it is a shame.

  7. Cars were already removed from 3rd but bus service still stinks in that corridor from congestion and indifferent operators!

    1. Can we beautify 3rd Avenue and make it look less like an ordinary car street? That’s something I’ve been thinking about. I’m not sure what — something more than just red paint, something to make it look more streetcar-like or sidewalk improvements or retro black lampposts or more greenery — something to make it feel like more of an oasis from the surrounding automobile streets. That would be something to spend toll money on.

  8. i just think it is weird to do congestion pricing when the city allows new office buildings to include thousands of new parking spaces.

    1. ronp, you’re looking at it wrong. There’s nothing weird about a big, new revenue source. You’ve got to start there. They are not trying to solve anything. They want new money, but they have to justify it by saying it’s in the name of high-minded ideals. Don’t get hung up on the hypocrisy. It’s all about the money.

  9. Bear with me as I feel I need to give some background. Please.

    First, I depend on public transit, OK? I can’t afford a Lyft everywhere and I use Lyft mostly as first mile/last mile and to make appointments. For my conscience I use Lyft Shared or Lyft Green at least 90% of the time. I also serve on a transit rider advisory committee as I feel a duty to give some public service somewhere despite my disabilities and out of frustration at the pace of change.

    That said, the blatant regressivity of congestion pricing coupled to the lack of park & ride capacity of at least Community Transit plus Everett Transit park & rides really makes me fundamentally oppose this. I would rather see a tax on ride hailing starting at $1 per ride-hail and $0.10 per mile. Raise the per mile as appropriate to reduce congestion and fund public transit. I would support a public referendum on doubling it to fund a strategy to cure homelessness – more drug treatment, more housing, more job placement, and a public vote to help protect the funds from being abused.

    Maybe I’m concern-trolling or pulling a Washington “Policy” Center. Or maybe I type from a place of compassion for my neighbors. You be the judge.

  10. As a construction worker who has to drive into Seattle to work, who pays 400 dollars a month for parking and just under 100 for gas I think this is insane. I can’t take my tools on a bus or bike. I can barely afford the parking and I so honestly believe that a tax on entering Seattle will push more people out and hurt the economy. People won’t want to work in Seattle if we keep getting taxed. We won’t be able to afford it. And it’s not going I hurt the people who live there but it will hurt the construction workers, then Uber drivers, the guy who makes your salad or smoothie for lunch and any other blue collar worker in the area.

    1. I have been saying that we need to deter nonessential cars so that essential cars like yours or gardeners’ or people transporting bulky items or the disabled who can’t walk to a bus stop can get through. As for restaurant workers, they’re not carrying anything bulky so they can take transit. As for Uber not being around, that’s not really a loss.

    2. As a construction worker in this economy you have the choice to work almost anywhere. I’m guessing you’re DT because it’s the best paying opportunity. I can guarantee the price quoted by the lead construction firm included the cost of working in a metro environment. I’m working in the Bellevue Spring District. All of the trades are provided parking by the construction company. Don’t know if that was a City requirement or just an effort to retain workers.

      It costs $30 to drive into the cordon around Mount Rainier. You have to pay to park in State parks, FS land, etc. The 520 bridge is tolled, the 99 tunnel will be tolled. Riding the bus isn’t free and they’re public property. Why is it people think it’s a constitutional right to drive their car for free on any public road any time they please.

  11. It comes down to whether one’s financial resources determine your ability to use public infrastructure. If it ends up like toll lanes where your ability to pay determines your ability to get where you’re going faster than those who can’t afford it then it is a despicable concept. It becomes particularly despicable in a city that likes to tout its progressive chops. It is PUBLIC infrastructure. Do I need to repeat that? PUBLIC, equally accessible to all.

    1. Public infrastructure is vulnerable to the tragedy of the commons. If it’s overused we have to do something about that. People aren’t paying in fees now but they’re paying in time and pollution.

  12. Spend the congestion fee revenue on homeless shelters and low-income housing, and on staffing Seattle Public Schools and Seattle Public Libraries with tutors. Voters love education, stuffing more jobs into buildings accessible via public transit should support public transit, and tying a bunch of sympathetic folks’ jobs (and kids’ tutoring) to the new revenue source should make the revenue source more popular and sustainable

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