August 9, 2001

Pricing gridlock out of the market

Northwest Environment Watch

Pop quiz: What product has earned Seattle international renown in the last year? Answer: No, not coffee — although you’re close, alphabetically at least. The answer is congestion.



After a Texas Transportation Institute report hurtled Seattle into the gridlock hall of fame last May by concluding that the Emerald City was the nation’s second most-congested metropolis, even The Economist took note. The venerable London magazine filed a July 14 article titled “Going Nowhere” that commented not only on our new status but on the state’s lack of legislative leadership on the issue. And that was before the latest transportation package collapsed.

Puget Sound residents, of course, don’t need outsiders to tell us that our roads are crammed, or that this “product” is hurting us economically, as well as socially and environmentally. Gridlock is killing revenues, making it harder to attract employees, keeping us from our families and choking a city that once upon a time — maybe six or seven years ago — was known as one of the nation’s most livable.

Here’s a more useful question: What method do most transportation planners agree is the only real solution to worsening gridlock?

If you guessed more roads or light rail, go back to planning school, where you’ll learn about a nifty tool called congestion pricing.

Congestion pricing refers to variable tolls that cost drivers more during peak periods and less as traffic dwindles. Drivers pay electronically: “phantom tollbooth” scanners deduct tolls from prepaid “smart cards” posted on dashboards or windshields.

Several versions of variable tolls have been tested with success around the nation. On San Diego’s Interstate 15, single drivers can choose to pay to use the HOV lanes, where tolls vary as often as every six minutes, depending on traffic flow. In Lee County, Fla., tolls are reduced during off-peak hours rather than raised during peak hours. And as part of a remarkable overhaul of its transportation system, New York City has adopted E-Zpass smart cards for tolls and is planning to move to variable pricing.

Congestion pricing has multiple benefits. Research indicates that many motorists react by driving at nonpeak periods, carpooling or taking transit — results that improve traffic flow and travel time. In addition, metropolitan areas need less new infrastructure because the number of drivers is more evenly spread throughout the day. Less infrastructure saves taxpayers money and keeps a lid on the number of new drivers (more capacity almost inevitably results in more demand). Fewer drivers equals less environmental impact.

Congestion tolls could generate more than $2 billion annually in the Northwest, funds that could be spent on highly needed transportation improvements. Or the money could go toward slashing local sales taxes, a special boon for low-income residents.

Congestion pricing is also sound business sense. Currently, the United States’ road transportation sector is one of the world’s last remaining examples of Soviet-style central planning. (Remember those photos of Soviet bread lines?) Governments build roads, then give away their use. Lacking any price mechanism, urban drivers pay for road use with their time, by waiting in traffic. With congestion pricing, those who drive the most miles, or at times of greatest demand, would pay the most.

Many people don’t like the idea of pay-per-use driving, of course — at least in the abstract — and so pilot projects are key to acceptance. When new pay-per-use lanes opened on southern California’s Route 91, only 45 percent of drivers approved of congestion pricing; one year later, as many as 75 percent did. The idea of paying variable tolls was offensive; the reality was welcome. Just so, Seattleites would warm to toll roads after driving on them, and no sooner.

Short of installing phantom tollbooths on existing roadways, traffic planners can accustom drivers to the technology by installing it at parking garages and ferry docks. They can also introduce pay-to-drive as a way for single-occupant vehicles to travel in carpool lanes — many of which can accommodate more vehicles without slowing — like the high-occupant-toll lanes that have succeeded in San Diego and Houston.

Variable tolls are inching closer to reality in Washington, as more citizens and policymakers become convinced of their effectiveness. Governor Locke’s Blue Ribbon Commission, a transportation task force of civic, government, business and labor leaders, included congestion pricing in its list of recommendations. The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) has also studied and endorsed congestion pricing in its metropolitan transportation plan, along with a number of other transportation pricing methods such as fixed tolls and parking fees.

One reason to believe congestion pricing and other pay-per-use fees for drivers will ultimately arrive in the Northwest, even if piecemeal and incrementally, is the lack of alternatives. According to PSRC, even if the citizens of greater Seattle tax themselves almost $1 billion extra each year — for mass transit, roads and other transportation improvements as specified in the region’s approved master transportation plan — afternoon gridlock will still spread to almost half the freeway network in the central Puget Sound region by 2020. The time residents spend stuck in traffic will triple; average freeway traffic speed will fall to 21 mph.

Sounds as if Seattle’s place in that gridlock hall of fame is assured, doesn’t it?

Alan Durning is executive director and Elisa Murray is communications director of Northwest Environment Watch, a Seattle-based research and communication center ( This piece is adapted from “This Place on Earth 2001: Guide to a Sustainable Northwest.”

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