Changing buses downtown at night. (Chuck Taylor)
Copyright © 2007 by Crosscut Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of articles that comprise a Crosscut special report, No Exit: Pay Toll Ahead. Comments are disabled on this article. You can comment on the whole series here.
If a proposal to charge tolls on all major Puget Sound freeways gets serious consideration by metro-area politicians, how will the public react? That depends on how quickly it realizes the inevitability of tolls and how well such a system accommodates those who wouldn’t be able to afford them. “Generally, in most states, citizens believe that their gas tax is a fair way to pay for transportation,” says Frank Wilson, a leading highway consultant based in Orange County, Calif., east of Los Angeles. “And they think they’re paying enough money. And they think what they’re paying is enough to solve the problem.” Wilson, who has helped develop hot lane projects in Minneapolis, San Diego, Orange County, and other urban centers, has also advised the Washington State Transportation Commission in studies of road-pricing possibilities. He says people generally are hesitant to embrace unfamiliar systems. “Anybody that studies change and innovation is familiar with the problem,” he says. “People tend to stay with the status quo until the problem gets big enough.” But, he adds, once road pricing becomes reality, “they are embraced by a broad cross-section of the public from all economic levels and multiple demographics.” King County Executive Ron Sims is proposing a widespread system of tolling (1.1 MB PDF) from Everett to Tacoma. He says the need for tolls is inevitable, that it’s the only affordable way to curtail gridlock, and we might as well start planning for it. Wilson thinks three things must be clear for the public to accept Sims’ proposal:
- Drivers must believe they have choices. There must be free alternatives to tolls.
- Tolls cannot slow down traffic, which means no toll booths.
- Motorists want fairness. They must feel they are not being penalized.
Wilson says elected leaders must explain the value and benefits of pricing systems and help the public understand why gas taxes are no longer sufficient to solve the transportation problems of regions whose populations are burgeoning. “They want to see their leaders stand up and say, ‘This is a good idea,'” he says. “We have the technology figured out,” says Jack Opiola, a Booz Allen Hamilton consultant who co-authored the suggested tolling plan for Sims. “But it’s not the technology that’s interesting – it’s the sociological issues, the psychological and behavioral issues: Why do you travel the way you do? Why do you drive a car? What makes you change your behavior? What gets you out of your car and into a bus?” Linda Hosea commutes 50 miles each way from her home in suburban Maple Valley to her job at Boeing’s Everett plant. Already she has cut back to three days a week in the office, working the other two at home. Each morning, she drives north on Interstate 405. If she plays her commuting cards properly, her daily commute is about two and a half hours, round trip. “I leave here by 6 a.m. and I don’t try to leave Everett at the end of my workday, which is 3:30 p.m.,” she says, explaining that she has learned to shop and run other errands in Everett before beginning the trip home to Maple Valley. “A toll might further affect my commute,” Hosea says. If Sims’ plan becomes reality, Hosea’s commute might cost $5 each way, a daily cost of $10, a monthly assessment of $120. Congestion pricing might prompt her to work longer hours or fewer days in Everett. “But I’m not interested in leaving my house at 5:30 a.m. to catch a bus. I think the bus system is stupid.” She says she would drive at least one day each week to Everett, and probably twice. “But I also know that if I have to continue this lifestyle, I will just retire sooner than I’d planned.” Py Bateman commutes five days a week from her home in Seattle’s Madison Valley neighborhood to Microsoft’s suburban Redmond campus. She tries to avoid rush hour but can’t always. Her one-way toll during rush hour would probably be $2. “If they turn the freeways into pay-as-you-go highways, I would still commute,” she says, “because it would cheaper in the long run than taking the bus – specifically, in terms of the value that I place on my time and comfort.” Bateman points out that Microsoft provides free bus passes to all employees, “so I could ride for free. But we don’t have a good transit system. If I were to take the bus, I would end up in downtown Seattle, at night, possibly in the rain, maybe waiting an hour to make my connection home.” Even though she would pay her daily tolls without much complaining, she is critical of tolls as “user fees” on public infrastructure. “I’m opposed to the idea of only those people who use roads paying for them – because there really are no people who don’t use them. There might be people who don’t drive on them. But there aren’t people who don’t benefit from them.” The freeways are an integral part of everybody’s lives now, Bateman says. “Just think of what society would be like if only people who were victimized by crime paid for the police? Or the prisons? It’s a concept a good society can live without.” To Hosea, Bateman, and thousands of others who feel the current transit systems are, indeed, “stupid,” Sims would insist that toll revenue is the best way to pay for the kinds of mass transit improvements that will, eventually, inspire people to choose those over private cars. Opiola, Wilson, and other transportation consultants agree that, for tolling to succeed, mass transit must improve simultaneously, and perhaps exponentially. Otherwise, those in the lower economic strata will be discriminated against. They will feel the pricing system treats them unfairly, because all of their “choices” turn out also to be out-of-proportion penalties: paying tolls they cannot afford or taking buses that are too crowded, too distant from their homes, or take so many hours and transfers that their time is literally stolen. Opiola makes it clear: Buses must serve more people more efficiently. Light rail, park-and-ride lots, even ferries must entice. Various governments must coordinate with these systems as well as each other. Commuters of various income levels must be able to afford – and use – at least one of the available transportation options. As of today, a system of interconnected transportation choices here is closer to make-believe than reality. And imagine the commute in 20 years, once another million souls have immigrated to the Puget Sound region. Congestion pricing alone won’t be enough. “People will get out of their cars,” Sims says, “but they need to make sure they have light rail systems; they have to have bus rapid transit systems; they have to have local bus systems–so they can get home.”