A Pennsylvania Turnpike toll plaza. (Pennsylvania Department of Transportation)
Danny Westneat's column in The Seattle Times about Ron Sims
reminds me of the King County executive's value in the political ecosystem: He can always be relied on to drag the skankiest skeleton from the policy closet and force a new public discussion: the income tax, fobbing off King County International Airport on someone else, and, now, tolling major roadways in the Seattle area.
For a politician willing to seize on unpopular ideas, Sims is remarkably resilient – a kamikaze who survives each crash. He's not working his way up the political ladder these days, but neither has he been tossed out on his ear. And whether you agree with him or not, he ought to be thanked. What he does takes guts, because it burns political capital. But often it sparks needed public policy debate.
Despite Seattle's idealization of process and consensus, a lot of the serious policy discussion takes place behind closed doors. The public is left out of the loop for lots of reasons. One is because policy-makers are often afraid of how we the people will respond to ideas they recognize as very inconvenient truths. Road tolls are one of those things: unpopular with the public, but very popular with the wonks and social engineers.
Sims and others are preparing the way for what is mainstream thinking in think-tank circles.
is how to talk about tolls and user fees for roads. They're are often put under the heading of "congestion pricing," or the new phrase which puts a more positive spin on it, "value pricing." Wow, who doesn't like a good value? Maybe next they'll simply call it "free candy."
The greens such as the Sightline folks like free candy – uh, congestion pricing
because it gets cars off the road. The people who can't afford to pay to use the roads at peak hours find other means to get to work. This is good for Sims because he's betting the farm on stuff like bus rapid transit (BRT) and voter-approved improvements to Metro Transit service in King County. To make that work, he needs fewer cars getting in the way and more bus riders. Make driving more expensive by tolling the roads, and voila.
Conservatives like tolls and fees because they can claim it's not a tax, and it's certainly not progressive because it whacks drivers regardless of income or the price of their vehicle. The contractor in a pickup pays the same as his client in a Porsche. But it also allows the much-loved "market" to winnow out gridlock.
The Puget Sound Regional Council has received a $1.88 million grant from the feds to use global positioning technology in a pilot project
"aimed at finding the best ways to advance value pricing in transportation planning." They further describe value pricing as "a way of harnessing the power of the market and reducing the waste associated with congestion." The Cascadia Project, an initiative of the conservative Discovery Institute, also likes tolls and value pricing
. If it weren't for Discovery
's umbrella, one might call the policy positively Darwinian.
That's pretty close
to an ideological consensus. Nevertheless, local politicians and officials are nervous about both traditional tolls and turning our streets into payways.
Frustration with aging infrastructure and congestion is high, and the public has proved that it is willing to dig deep to solve transportation problems. But some tolls could get so high that they make little common sense, and there is a general skepticism about turning the streets into amenities that restrict freedom of movement and disproportionately hurt the working poor – especially as those people are driven farther and farther from the city due to rising housing costs.
A report to the Legislature earlier this year made clear that tolls on the new Highway 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington could likely be between $7 and $10 per round trip
– and it still
wouldn't pay for the project. Some believe the tolls would be less if we started charging bridge tolls now
, before the bridge is replaced. State Treasurer Michael Murphy has said
he would not approve any proposal that didn't include tolling the Interstate 90 bridge, too. You see, "free candy" spreads easily.
Part of the 520 problem is that it doesn't pencil out unless you consider 40-year time frames and the junk-bond financing that sank the Seattle Monorail Project.
Congestion pricing is also
being considered in the city proper, but cautiously. The Report from the Citizen's Transportation Committee
to the mayor in 2004 recommended that Seattle begin looking at user fees in the city as part of a regional or statewide plan to do so. The committee also recommended further study:
The committee recognizes the emerging technical possibilities for "electronic tolling" that could monitor travel on city transportation facilities and even facilitate automatic billing of toll fees to motorists. Although the committee was favorably disposed to the concept of tolling, the political and technical challenges of establishing a tolling system within the City of Seattle appear too formidable to recommend pursuing at this time.
The city went in a different direction (boosting property taxes) to get big bucks from the voters for a major "streets and bridges" rehab. It's saying something about the popularity of tolling the streets when a property tax hike looks like a great option. But reports like this have been laying the groundwork for the toll and fee policies Sims is bringing into the daylight. Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbrueck is also bringing forward a new plan to study "mobility" along the waterfront as part of a "surface solution" to the Alaskan Way Viaduct conundrum. It includes looking at congestion pricing.
The timetable for this conversation is driven by aging infrastructure and safety, desire for congestion relief, new technology, increased concern about global warming, and demands by the business community and developers that we make the region more suitable for growth and economic expansion. That will certainly involve major changes in the way we pay for and manage – or micromanage – everyone's movement.
or value pricing or free candy, whatever you call it, is a way to force us to change our behavior. It's an automotive sin tax. As such it is a huge factor in larger social and cultural policy: Whose pocketbooks will be impacted, how will people get to work, how will our conception of the city and the entire region change as a result?
Other important questions concern the flawed and vulnerable Big Brother technology
involved in electronic tolling, the technological "advance" that makes the idea practical. I plan to revisit that topic soon.
Meantime, Sims is doing a public service. Pro or con, the time for the broader public discussion of road tolls, user fees, and free candy is now.