The Move Seattle Levy will request $277 per year from a typical homeowner, and that’s only 1/4th of SDOT’s funding and doesn’t even include Sound Transit. In other words, about $2000 of your annual rent or your annual property tax bill is going to pay for congestion relief, primarily trains and buses (non-motorized transportation has less than 1/10th the level of expenditure, and WSDOT is funded through the gas tax). Do we really want to fund our transportation systems by making housing affordability worse?
There is another way to pay for fixing our transportation system that’s much cheaper and more effective, and that’s congestion pricing. The idea is to toll cars on congested roadways at whatever level is required to prevent regular congestion. When a roadway has regular stop and go traffic, the price to drive on it is ramped up. When extra capacity is available, the price to drive is dropped down as far as possible, being free at certain times of day. The idea is to discourage daily commuters from driving alone during peak hours, then to use the funds to pay for road maintenance and transportation alternatives.
Congestion pricing has been demonstrated to work. It’s been put in place in London, Stockholm, Singapore, and Milan. In London, after congestion tolling began, the main effect was that all the buses were so far ahead of schedule that they had to rework the entire bus system for the extra capacity. Transportation planners love it because it’s by far the best path to meeting transportation goals:
- Instant Success: Unlike adding a bus lane or a rail line, congestion tolling simply opens up existing infrastructure to better use, meaning you get results instantly without years-long construction delays and expense. In particular, buses go faster and can service more people right away, even on 4 and 2 lane roadways that don’t work for bus lanes. Instead of working around congested roads, the focus can shift to making our existing transportation system work better and safer for everyone.
- Maximized Throughput: A saturated freeway running near the speed limit moves more people and wastes far less fuel than stop and go traffic. Not only that, but since congestion pricing incentivizes carpools, transit, and off peak driving, you end up moving many more people overall. Unlike a carpool or bus lane, congestion priced roads rarely fill up and never sit empty while traffic is stopped up along side.
- Fairly Raising Revenues for Transportation Alternatives: Transportation alternatives are all expressly designed to coax people out of their cars, including people that don’t live in Seattle. This means that today someone in a live / work unit in Seattle is spending thousands of dollars a year on rent or taxes in the hopes that someone outside of Seattle might take a transportation alternative when they are in Seattle. The fair solution is not to put taxes on housing affordability, but instead to put a price on people causing the congestion we are trying to fix.
- Fairly Incentivizing All Transportation Alternatives: We currently use our property taxes to subsidize a grossly distorted economy of transportation alternatives. On the one hand, alternatives like telecommuting, living near work, and carpooling get virtually no support from government at all. On the flip side, anyone paying rent or property taxes in Seattle is subsidizing each bus commuter at a rate of $11 per day, and each light rail commuter at a rate of over $200 per day. The only way to fairly incentivize all transportation alternatives is to put a price on the problem of congestion.
A complaint about congestion tolling is that we don’t want our roads to just be for rich drivers and buses, like the 520 bridge is now. It’s a fair complaint. One solution is to provide every driver with a monthly credit for toll-free driving that can be applied to any vehicle. That way somebody who only drives once a week on congested roads can still do it for free, and people that carpool can double their time on a road before needing to split the cost of paying the toll.
Seattle should be leading the way on congestion tolling as we are ideally set up for it with our many bridges acting as choke points for congestion pricing. We are way behind on building out a rail network and are also poorly set up for one with our varied topography, sandy soils, earthquakes, and high property values. Yet congestion pricing isn’t even being discussed here yet.
The trouble is that congestion tolling is a very tough sell politically. Emotionally, half of people don’t want to be told to make sacrifices or carpool, they want to be left alone with their car and be free of government social engineering. The other half of people are fixated on having big government pay whatever it takes for new public transportation systems that will shuttle them around wherever they want to go. Nobody wants to focus on sacrifices like tolls and driving less.
The only political solution that everyone can agree on today is a purely additive transportation solution like rail, so we ignore the decades long time scale and mind blowing costs for construction, operations, and maintenance. We jack up rents and housing prices with sky high property taxes to pay for a solution that will take decades to build and won’t even address traffic, then complain about housing affordability. Take London or New York, with perfect rail topography and with rail systems that have been in development for over a hundred years. What do you get? Gridlock so bad, both cities are leading the way on congestion pricing!
Politicians here are too afraid to even raise the topic of congestion pricing, and instead are doing what’s possible with majority support. Namely, the ironically named “Move Seattle” levy this year and the Sound Transit 3 levy planned for next year, both of them record setting tax increases. However, I’m a cranky vegetarian blogger and it’s OK with me if you think I’m wrong. You did last time, when I argued that rail was a bad investment but most people voted for rail anyway. So here, ya go, a vote to set me straight: