Plagued by Nightmarish Traffic, Seattle Politicians Warm to Congestion Pricing

Many libertarians like the idea of charging drivers tolls to smooth out traffic flows, but much depends on how the idea is implemented.


Seattle traffic
Deanna Matzen/

It is no secret that Seattle suffers from nightmarish traffic. Seattleites spent 55 hours each in congested rush-hour traffic last year, making their city the ninth most congested in the country, according to the INRIX 2017 Traffic Scorecard. With the Emerald City adding cars as quickly as it's adding people, roadway speeds are only going to get worse in the years to come.

The scale of the problem is such that the city's politicians are taking a hard look at a policy beloved by many free market advocates: congestion pricing. The idea behind congestion pricing is to charge drivers for the space they take up on shared roadways, either through a variable toll that rises with the number of cars on the road or through a flat fee to enter particularly congested parts of a city.

Baruch Feigenbaum, assistant director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation (which publishes this website), says congestion pricing helps manage demand for roads by giving drivers "a menu from which to choose." While "some people are just going to pay the price," he says, "other folks would switch to transit service" or "change trip times to off-peak times when it's less congested."

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has enthusiastically endorsed the policy, saying this week she would like to see congestion pricing on Seattle's roads by the end of her first term in 2021. Seattle City Councilman Mike O'Brien likewise has said it would be a "path forward."

Should Seattle pursue congestion pricing, it would be one of the few U.S. cities to do so. Currently only Virginia is trying out the idea in any meaningful sense, imposing variable tolls on certain congested roadways near Washington, D.C.

New York, Los Angeles, and Portland are kicking around the idea too, but none has acted on it yet. Abroad, London, Milan, Singapore, and Stockholm have imposed some form of congestion pricing, helping to unclog those cities' streets.

Despite the growing enthusiasm for congestion pricing, some Seattle voices are opposing its implementation on free market grounds, saying their city's politicians are looking to impose yet another tax to solve a problem of their own making. "I think it's important to begin with the fact that Seattle officials have artificially reduced the supply of roads despite increased demand by the public over the past many, many years," says Mariya Frost, a transportation policy expert at the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank, pointing to the billions the city has spent on ineffective rail transit, road diets, and rebuilding highways with reduced capacity.

"They've made policy decisions that make congestion worse," Frost says. "Now they say they want to reduce congestion for which they are largely responsible by imposing a new coercive tax on the public."

Durkan has sold congestion pricing as a way of achieving progressive goals such as reduced carbon emissions and increased funding for public transit. Perhaps for that reason, her endorsement of congestion pricing received a muted reception from the Seattle Chamber of Commerce (a heavy donor to her 2017 mayoral campaign) and the Downtown Seattle Association, another business group.

Feigenbaum thinks there is good reason to be concerned that congestion pricing will be used for purposes other than traffic management. "Congestion pricing is a tool in the tool box that should be used, but it is a matter of using it in a reliable way," he says. "It should not be spent on light rail somewhere else. It should have some sort of nexus with traffic."

Seattle has given every indication in recent years that it won't spend any money generated by congestion pricing fees on sound traffic reduction measures. In 2016, Seattle-area voters approved a $54 billion transit expansion that Sound Transit, the agency responsible for building the expansion, estimated would carry just 30,000 of the 800,000 new people expected to live and work in the city by 2040. Meanwhile, traffic congestion has been aggravated in parts of the city by construction work on a streetcar project that has run some $70 million over budget.

Nevertheless, Feigenbaum says, "congestion pricing can still be a solution" to managing the demand for the roadways that the city does have. Frost argues that congestion pricing would be appropriate only on new lanes added by the city. Like Feigenbaum, she says the money generated by it should be plowed back into highways. Unless that happens, she says, congestion pricing would do little to help the "great majority of people in the region because a lot them can't afford to live anywhere near Seattle, and they do depend on a vehicle for their daily commute."