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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 trafficDeanna Matzen/Dreamstime.com

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."

Photo Credit: Deanna Matzen/Dreamstime.com

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It's always roads with you people, isn't it?

  • Mr. Dyslexic||

    It's roads all the way down.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    They don't have this problem in Somalia.

  • John||

    Make it impossible for anyone without enough money to drive during rush hour will end traffic congestion. That is true. It will not, however, solve your underlying problem of not having enough roads. All congestion pricing does is make getting somewhere so expensive that it is no longer affordable or available to enough people to make the roads no longer crowded. That is nice but it defeats the purpose of building the roads in the first place. Why not just tear the road down. That way no one drives and you no longer have any traffic problems.

    You build roads so people can get places. If they are too crowded, you build more roads. You don't say "well lets just only let people who have a lot of money drive on them".

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Let me guess, John. You are opposed to net neutrality.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Seattle responded by cordoning off the roads that already existed.

  • sage||

    Seattle is stupid. Big shock.

    You can't drive downtown, but you can see all the rainbow crosswalks they've painted, and all the roads they've restricted to buses only.

    Meanwhile, the top story in The Times is how the school district got its first native American superintendent. So yeah, you can't drive, but at least they're getting the boxes checked on their diversity card.

  • John||

    No. One has nothing to do with the other.

  • SimonP||

    There is no such thing as "having enough roads." The more you build, the more people drive, and congestion remains a constant.

    The reason so many people bitch over congestion pricing is that it's being imposed on top of decades of city planning that actively encouraged sprawl and single-occupancy vehicle use. All of those subsidies seem baked in and a way of life; trying to reverse the trend feels "wrong" somehow, because it's taking away the candy they've grown up on.

    You people should take a look at the NYC highways sometime. There are a few! But very few of them are anywhere near as wide as the traffic sewers you find in places like Atlanta or even the picture in the post above. Yet somehow people are able to get where they're going. How? Commuter rail, subways, and buses.

    It's just that simple. It's idiotic beyond belief to add lanes to a highway when everyone is going to the same place, along the same corridor. Yet that's what carheads think is the natural order of things. You just keep on sprawling until you reach some kind of firm geographic or jurisdictional limit. Jobs and homes get spread out, infrastructure costs per acre skyrocket, and you crater municipal finances. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

  • CE||

    People don't drive more just because there are more roads. They drive to get places.

  • Bubba Jones||

    The result is higher real estate prices downtown.

  • prolefeed||

    Depends on how you do it. Austin added a single congested priced lane each direction to the existing non-toll lanes on Mopac freeway. If you want to go faster, you pay a hefty toll, otherwise you go in the slower lanes that still go faster than before the new lane was added.

    Building new lanes that are financed by voluntary tolls is a less statist approach to roads.

    Adding tolls to all existing lanes, with the money going to unrelated stuff and not to building new lanes - well, that's just a tax increase that has the side effect of slightly reducing congestion by pricing some people out of rush hour traffic altogether.

    More statist.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    This is why we need government, people: all the free till roads we need: free!

  • Juice||

    Need to make all those freeways double deckers.

  • The Last American Hero||

    They do.

    The current freeway through town has the same number of lanes as it had when it was originally constructed in the 1950's. The city now has 6x as many people.

    Of course, the brilliant city planners built a convention center over the freeway, so double decking is unlikely to happen.

  • ||

    Of course, the brilliant city planners built a convention center over the freeway, so double decking is unlikely to happen.

    And, of course, you could tax the convention center directly for any congestion that it's sure to cause hosting events in addition to physically blocking roadway expansion... except that it was built at taxpayer's expense.

  • Bubba Jones||

    What is the alleged point of this? Isn't congestion its own form of cost? Why is it a public good that I pay $30 to save 20 minutes on my commute?

    If traffic isn't bad enough that people will telecommute or reschedule their commute, then why is it bad enough to charge people money? Obviously these people don't have the option to telecommute or drive at a different time. Or else they would already do it.

    This is a power grab.

  • ||

    This is a power grab.

    Right. Income and property taxes already paved and maintained the roads. Vehicle sales taxes do it redundantly. Fuel taxes do it redundantly redundantly. The idea that byzantine toll structures on top of the rest is in any way libertarian is bizarre.

  • ChuckNorrisBeardFist||

    Why do libertarians likes this?

    So we pay taxes to pay for the roads - which we have no choice in.
    Now, we are going to have to pay to sit on the roads?

    I'm not seeing how this is good?

    Instead of discussing, more telework or staggering office hours for some companies, or something outside the box - it's just another money grab for the city. Why pay the city more money for something I paid for?

    "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.""

    Again, depends on what company you work for doesn't it?

    Did Tony write this?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    So we pay taxes to pay for the roads - which we have no choice in.
    Now, we are going to have to pay to sit on the roads?

    The classic argument would be to divorce other taxes from usage taxes. So, getting rid of others and keeping it purely on gasoline, or road usage. As things like electric cars and bikes become more popular, the latter becomes increasingly more logical. Road usage has a big issue with tracking though. And this is something we as libertarians should be concerned with. But I think usage taxes in general are better.

    Instead of discussing, more telework or staggering office hours for some companies, or something outside the box

    Seattle is a city of radicals thinking firmly inside the box. Plus, they tend to prefer decreeing things to businesses rather than having conversations with them.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Tracking is already done for states with annual safety inspections. Texas records your odometer each year.

  • CE||

    What about trains?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    It's funny, some of the high-end shopping in downtown has turned into a ghost town over the last couple of years. 60% vacancies etc. I'm loathe to blame it on any one thing, but if you consider how "great the economy" is doing right now, it's a little jarring to see. Perhaps it's more complicated-- and the real issue is that the economy is shifting away from brick and mortar, and increasingly online. However, the shopping centers in the suburbs seem to be booming. Either way, as I said to a friend on this very story last night, if the goal is to keep people out of Seattle (downtown) and stopping people from shopping and spending money by... erecting walls, if you will, the city is on track with the right plan.

    And this generation of city council members are like WrongWay Corrigan, they'll come up with exactly the wrong plan to fix anything.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    This is very obviously a revenue grab from Durkan. I don't take issue with usage based taxes in general. But this specific case is so transparently an abuse. Everything she suggests is just the same rehased non-sense of spending money until the problem is fixed.

    And sadly it works. Blame all the problems on the increased wealth brought by Amazon, and continually drain everyone of their revenue to burn in a pit to keep homeless people warm.

  • ||

    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.

    Let's be clear that the libertarians and free market advocates wanted the congestion pricing up front instead of down payments at the end of a gun. They also wanted congestion pricing in lieu of fuel taxes. Having already paid the down payment, and the fuel tax, the use-rate fees are just another nothing-to-do-with-free-markets tax.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    There's another entirely localized problem here, the Seattle DOT created the congestion, then looked around and said, "OMG, where'd all this congestion come from?", now they want charge a use-fee for it. For the last few years, Seattle has been implementing "road diets", narrowing of lanes, lane reductions, street closures for "parklets" (no, I'm not making that up) to create a more vibrant community feel. Throw into this their subscription to Vision Zero(mph) and everything has come to a painful crawl.

    I do understand that streets and roads are not like... bandwidth. You can't just continuously increase them and their capacity without some painful disruption-- or other negative consequences, but as the area has grown, they actually shrank capacity. That was a plan that someone raised up the flagpole, and the entire political establishment of Seattle saluted.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Vision Zero

    Almost forgot about that fucking pipedream.

  • ||

    Also, since the City is in now way in control of any given congestion incident I can't fathom how they would presume they could reasonably enact and enforce such a tax.

    It would be like charging a use for italics in the forum and then extorting it from everyone after BUCS or whomever fucks up closing an italics tag.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    can't fathom how they would presume they could reasonably enact and enforce such a tax.

    Same way London did.

  • ||

    Same way London did.

    I suppose you're right and maybe I'm being selectively naive. I guess I was romantically assuming Texans or Idahoans would be (or their relatives with vested inteterests in Seattle would be) opposed to paying whimsical taxes for traveling through Seattle and have some legal standing. Hoosiers and Wisconsinites hate paying tolls to use the roadways through Chicagoland around the lake but they do it anyway.

    I can't wait until a/the city can pay Skynet Roku's Basilisk Google Maps to route people through these cities for added revenue, less congestion (or both!).

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    What will be interesting is to see if the City of Seattle has the will to enact and enforce such a tax. Seattle has one dim light in the darkness of its political landscape, and that is the locals are a mildly suspicious of cameras.

    To enact things like 'congestion pricing', it's going to require that the city wallpaper cameras everywhere and log every license plate going to and fro.

    I'm curious to see how the locals struggle with the notion of enriching the state (something they're very pro) but being recorded by big brother-- something they're thankfully a bit touchy about.

  • esteve7||

    How about the gas tax $ goes to highways and not your bullshit light rail and all that other crap no one uses? Then maybe our roads would be better and not congested?

  • Get To Da Chippah||

    Congestion pricing implemented by lefty cities -- leftists swoon.

    Surge pricing implemented by Lyft and Uber -- leftists scream.

  • ||

    ^^ This guy gets it.

  • SIV||

    Many libertarians like the idea of charging drivers tolls to smooth out traffic flows,

    No, they don't, but for the few who do, line up right behind the commies for your free one-way helicopter ride. You can even pay a toll to cut to the head of the line.

  • axiomata||

    Relevant contrarian discussion:
    http://www.econtalk.org/archiv.....ger_5.html

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