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Tolling Points

Boston and Seattle Look to Congestion Pricing

By: 
Bill Cramer

Two cities on the United States’ east and west coasts, both with epic local traffic problems, are considering congestion pricing as a way to get people and goods moving again.

In Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan is looking at a downtown pricing cordon as a source of funding for local transit and electric vehicle charging stations, and a lead option for controlling tailpipe carbon emissions. In Boston, meanwhile, the annual INRIX congestion survey has become a catalyst for local stakeholders to consider congestion pricing as an option for improving traffic flows.

One Tool in a Wider Toolbox

In Seattle, according to KUOW News, the mayor has set the tone, and the local transportation department will be filling in the details by the end of the year.

"We know that we can reduce our greenhouse gases significantly," Durkan said. "We have around 400,000 vehicles entering our center city on a daily basis. We need to reduce that amount," but “you have to also commit to having that infrastructure that allows people to get out of their cars."

Enter congestion pricing as a cornerstone for a dozen carbon reduction policies the mayor introduced last week. The list includes mandatory electric vehicle chargers at new or renovated parking facilities, setting a deadline to electrify all taxis and ride-shares, and a series of other measures related to buildings and city operations.

“Between deterring drivers and providing funding for less-polluting forms of travel, congestion pricing alone can knock 10% off all carbon emissions in the city, more than any other single policy in the works,” KUOW notes, citing the city's sustainability office. But Durkan is still clear that the approach is just one tool in a much wider toolbox.

"Congestion pricing can’t stand alone as a tool to change behavior," she said. "You have to offer real alternatives to people so they will choose something other than their car." 

Starting the Discussion

The conversation is a bit more preliminary in Boston, where INRIX found that “drivers spend the highest percentage of their time stuck in traffic compared to any other city in the country,” at 14%, Boston.com reports.

“If you’re a household of two drivers, you’re losing $300 a month in traffic congestion,” said Transportation for Massachusetts Director Chris Dempsey. “Think about what $300 a month would mean for the average household.”

Boston.com notes that “traffic woes are hardly a new issue in Boston, where the daily congestion has taken its toll on commuters and local businesses alike, as well as the city’s perceived ability to attract future businesses.” While the volume “is an indicator of healthy economy and a growing population,” it’s also “a problem that can worsen if left unaddressed.”

In response, the local news site is looking at cities elsewhere that have already introduced successful congestion pricing programs. “Conceptually and empirically, it’s the only thing that’s ever been shown to reduce traffic congestion,” said UCLA transportation specialist and former Massachusetts native Mike Manville. “It causes people to realize the costs they’re imposing on others,” agreed Harvard professor José Gómez-Ibáñez.

In an interview with Commonwealth Magazine, Manville made a great case for the basic principles behind congestion pricing—and the wider tolling industry.

“We have meters for our gas, for our heating oil, for our electricity, and it should tell us something that we don’t twice a day have blackouts,” he noted. “We don’t twice a day have our heat shut off. We don’t twice a day see our toilets back up. We do, twice a day or more, see our road systems fail from overuse, and that’s because we give it away for free.”

Introducing congestion pricing is easier said than done, New York City, which was thought to make a bold step forward this year, made only small steps forward. Both Seattle and Boston are now at the point where they’ll have to get into the nitty gritty details of program design, stakeholder input, and public outreach. But that effort is a great example of what local jurisdictions can do, and are doing, to get a handle on the national surface transportation infrastructure crisis from the ground up.

Innovative approaches to highway funding and finance are breaking out all over! Attend IBTTA’s Summit on Finance & Policy, July 22-24, 2018 in Portland, OR to find out more.