June 3, 2019 5:30 PM, EDT

Seattle DOT Considers Congestion Pricing

Seattle trafficTraffic fills all lanes of Interstate 5 heading into downtown Seattle in October 2017. (Associated Press)

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Seattle has become the latest metropolitan area to consider the possibility of congestion pricing to mitigate traffic.

A recently published study by the Seattle Department of Transportation assessing the potential of congestion pricing in an effort to reduce clogged roadways and limit greenhouse gas emissions said toll rates that fluctuate with demand (the more congested a road, the steeper the fee) can encourage people to use public transportation or drive during off-peak times.

The study identified 11 potential pricing tools and narrowed those options to four: fleet pricing, road usage charges, cordon pricing, which means charging a vehicle that crosses a boundary into a pricing zone, and area pricing, which involves charging a vehicle that crosses a boundary and drives inside a pricing zone.

Washington Trucking Associations has opposed congestion pricing in the area. Sheri Call, executive vice president of WTA, said the group is seeking exemptions for trucks in case any congestion pricing plan materializes. While Call said that larger trucks try to avoid downtown Seattle, she acknowledged that local delivery trucks would likely feel the financial burden of congestion pricing.

Washington Trucking Associations Executive Vice President Sheri Call


“Trucks really have no option. They would stand to pay every time they enter a zone,” Call said. “We’re definitely opposed on that basis and hope to seek a potential exemption for trucking. There will be an impact on consumer prices.”

Five pinch points in the Puget Sound region, including Seattle, Tacoma, Federal Way and Auburn, appear on the American Transportation Research Institute’s list of top 100 truck bottlenecks in the country, unveiled Feb. 12. The intersection of interstates 5 and 90 in downtown Seattle ranks No. 37.

Call said that the area’s two ports, located in Seattle and Tacoma, generate a lot of freight traffic.

Seattle joins several other American cities, including New York and the greater Washington area, that are exploring congestion pricing. Transportation experts suggest that the trend toward congestion pricing indicates a growing effort among metropolitan areas to reduce congestion.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s spending plan contains the Central Business District Tolling program, which will include electronic tolling devices posted along the perimeter of midtown and lower Manhattan. The Trucking Association of New York has opposed the tolling plan.

Robert Berman, CEO of Rekor Systems, a company that specializes in vehicle recognition systems, said congestion pricing is an attractive option for places like New York City that do not have room to build new lanes.

Seattle DOT’s study draws from lessons learned from international cities that have pioneered congestion pricing, such as London and Stockholm. Chris McCarthy, head of consulting firm North Highland’s transportation practice, said that congestion pricing can serve as a more reliable revenue source than fuel taxes, which are becoming less effective as vehicles become more fuel efficient.

Traffic congestion in Seattle

Seattle joins several other American cities, including New York and the greater Washington area, that are exploring congestion pricing. (Associated Press)

“I think the altruistic idea of congestion pricing is to limit congestion and limit greenhouse gases, but there’s certainly a monetary piece there,” McCarthy said. “I think others are going to look at that and see it as a very viable revenue source.”

Baruch Feigenbaum, assistant director of transportation policy at the research group Reason Foundation, said congestion pricing is attractive to cities because it allows them to direct a stream of revenue toward their own projects. He pointed out that fuel tax revenue goes to state government agencies, which usually prioritize larger road projects. Cities, on the other hand, are usually more interested in local mobility, such as transit, cycling and walking.

“I think this is in some ways a control-of-the-money issue,” Feigenbaum said. “The cities want to control it because then they can spend it on the things that they want to build.”

Seattle DOT remains in an exploratory stage, and the study states that transportation officials plan to engage with community members in order to develop a pricing program.

Berman said congestion pricing studies will only grow more popular among major cities, noting that younger populations generally favor the public transportation systems that congestion pricing programs tend to benefit.

“I think you’re going see it in all the big cities,” Berman said. “I think it’s going to start happening across the country in cities where they need it.”