Traffic's so bad, we might actually be willing to pay a toll

Puget Sound policy-makers have been taking the public pulse. Their surveys reveal that people are generally pessimistic about the future, frustrated with traffic, and willing to pay to cross Lake Washington in a car – as long as it's really cheap.
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Old-fashioned tolling booths would not come back, though the revenues would.

Puget Sound policy-makers have been taking the public pulse. Their surveys reveal that people are generally pessimistic about the future, frustrated with traffic, and willing to pay to cross Lake Washington in a car – as long as it's really cheap.

Deep in the bowels of the Puget Sound Regional Council are people who are planning our future. What will the Puget Sound area look like in 2040? They compile data, conduct studies, talk with experts, and plot our course with impressive – and sometimes impressively complex – flow charts. If the devil is in the details, these folks are on a first name basis with Satan.

One of the groups plotting your future (and your children's children's future) is the so-called Pricing Task Force, which is charged with figuring out issues like tolling, congestion pricing, dynamic tolling, variable pricing, freeway network tolling, area pricing, HOT lane networks, etc., etc. It's all pretty straightforward: They envision a time when driving in the metro area will be a pay-as-you go proposition. You don't convene a Pricing Task Force unless you think our "free" ride is coming to and end.

But it's new and tricky stuff, so there are a lot of concepts to be considered, lots of research to chew over. The Pricing Task Force is sorting out the options to fund transportation with user-fees. They're looking at what the effects of various pricing tactics will be on the economy, gridlock, the environment, property values, and human behavior. They have cities like London, Stockholm, and Singapore to look to for examples of how to boost transit ridership and punish people for driving, among other things, using tools like radio transponders, car scanners, and networks of surveillance cameras.

At this month's meeting, the task force heard about data from two recent surveys about transportation and tolling, one conducted by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) [60K PDF] by McDonough Associates and the other for King County by EMC Research.

The surveys presented some pretty encouraging numbers for advocates of bridge tolling – especially the Highway 520 floating bridge cross Lake Washington. But they also painted a grimmer picture of how our transportation system is viewed overall. And some of the numbers seem like a wake-up call concerning priorities. So much emphasis in Seattle transportation discussion is about mass transit (light rail, streetcars, bus rapid transit) and other "green" solutions (biking, walking, greater density). But people in the region continue to be hopeful that we can still build our way out of traffic congestion with more lanes and bigger freeways.

In addition to the surveys, WSDOT also conducted focus groups [203K PDF] in December around King County on tolling and road pricing strategies. Lets go through some of the survey highlights, with a few tidbits added from the focus group results.


WSDOT talked to 1,200 registered voters in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties in December. When asked to name the priorities of state government, the number one answer was education (19 percent) with transportation a close second (16 percent) and cutting taxes third (15 percent). When you add up the responses related to transportation (congestion, mass transit, etc.), the transportation-related number jumps to 50 percent.

King County's telephone survey of 500 residents, also conducted in December, indicated that 54 percent of respondents believe that traffic and transportation are "the most important problem facing King County." The WSDOT focus group concluded: "Participants almost unanimously felt that traffic is getting worse."

When WSDOT asked tri-county residents to name the major transportation priority in the region, the top vote-getter was replacing the 520 bridge (45 percent), with road safety and replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct tied for second with 29 percent each. A close third was expanding major highways like Interstate 90, Interstate 405, and Interstate 5. Green solutions were given a lower prority. Mass transit, for example, came in at only 5 percent, light rail at 2 percent, and more buses at 1 percent. In short, ask people an opened-ended question, and they want more and improved roads. When asked about preferred mass transit strategies, more buses at 28 percent topped the list.

The King County survey rated the public's priorities on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being most urgent and 1 being not at all urgent. The top priority (rating 6.05) was reducing traffic congestion. Next were taking action on the Viaduct (5.28), expanding bus service (5.03), expanding light rail (4.75), adding lanes to roads (4.68), and replacing 520 (4.55).

In terms of 520, the King County poll found that 82 percent in King County agree that the floating bridge needs to be replaced. Interestingly, concerns about safety did not significantly increase support for replacement. What motivated most people was that the 1963, four-lane span is old and over capacity. In other words, it's too small for the traffic it's carrying. A six-lane version got strong support.


The surveys indicate that people are pretty comfortable with the idea of tolling 520 to pay for replacing it. King County's survey says 84 percent of respondents think tolling is preferable to higher general taxes, more expensive license-plate tabs, or an increased gas tax. WSDT found that 77 percent of tri-county voters support helping to pay for a portion of 520 replacement with tolls.

The WSDOT survey showed that bridge tolls had 70 percent support as a means of funding transportation, followed by a flat-rate vehicle tax (58 percent) and HOV lane tolls (52 percent). Other funding sources – like gas tax, motor vehicle excise tax, freeway and variable (time of day) tolling, sales tax increases, and charging people for miles traveled – all scored less than 50 percent support. The survey also showed that the strongest arguments for tolls were that they were temporary "user fees" that would be lifted when the project was paid for. That's an idea that's been used before on Lake Washington; both 520 and the old I-90 bridge were built that way.

There was also strong support for tolling I-90 concurrently to avoid more congestion created by a tolled 520. People tended to support the concept of "pre-construction tolling" as a way to get a head start in paying for bridge replacement.

The WSDOT focus group had a high degree of skepticism about the idea of tolling all traffic lanes. Bridge tolls and HOT lanes (tolled HOV lanes) had more acceptance. But people worried about the class implications of widespread tolling. According to the focus group summary: "Participants also disliked tolling all lanes because they thought it would affect low-income people the most, and thought low-income workers often have the least schedule flexibility. There was concern that this type of tolling is 'punitive,' 'elitist' or 'classist.'"

A couple of other flies in the ointment: The public's idea of a fair toll is pretty low. When asked what a reasonable one-way toll on 520 was, the mean amount was $2.22. When asked about a reasonable round-trip toll, the mean amount was $2.37 – in other words, only 15 cents more for a round trip! The King County poll put the price as about $2.50, but people seemed willing to go to a $4 if it also helped fund transit and I-90 maintenance. (It's ambiguous, however, whether that was a one way or a round-trip figure.) In the real world, policy makers are discussing much higher tolls – double or more the mean amounts ($6 to $7 starting as early as next year). Part of the reason for higher tolls is to cover the gap in construction costs left by other funding sources. But also, high tolls discourage drivers and therefore help ease congestion by pricing them off the road. The driving public could experience sticker shock when the actual tolls are rolled out.

Another concern is that while the WSDOT survey talked to many voters in the 520 "commuter shed" of Bellevue, Kirkland, North and Central Seattle, etc., everyday 520 users made up a tiny percentage of those surveyed. Only 1 percent of people polled actually drive 520 daily. Most, 68 percent, drive the bridge only occasionally. That suggests that people seem to think tolls are great – for someone else.

Running counter to that, however, is the fact that some of the most toll-friendly surveyees were in Pierce County. That could be because they'll never drive 520, or alternatively because the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge, with its electronically collected tolls, is proving popular. Nevertheless, WSDOT says it is going to try to get more in-depth results from actual 520 bridge users, a critical constituency for gauging the real acceptance of tolls.

The public mood

In its executive summary memo of poll results for WSDOT, pollster DMA Market Research indicated that the Puget Sound public's mood was dour. Forty-five percent thought things generally in the Puget Sound region "have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track." "Tri-County voters are more pessimistic than optimistic," they write. They observe that "'wrong track' opinion has increased steadily throughout 2007."

When WSDOT asked about Proposition 1, the big transportation measure that failed at the ballot box last November (the month before the poll was taken), a majority (51 percent) said they thought it failed because it was too expensive or because it was a tax increase, and 74 percent said they thought the two components (roads and mass transit) should have been voted on separately. "Participants disliked the cost of the measure, said the size of the measure was too ambitious, were concerned about the ability of agencies to deliver promised projects, and saw the measure as vague and lacking a structure for accountability."

Voters also gave mediocre ratings to various transportation agencies. WSDOT was viewed favorably by 52 percent, Sound Transit by 55 percent, and the Regional Transportation Improvement District (RTID) by only 23 percent (with 27 percent saying they had never heard of it). Interestingly, most popular was Washington State Ferries, with a 64 percent favorable rating, even though it is currently in mid-meltdown.

The public delivers mixed messages: They want projects built and say transportation funding is urgent, but an almost equal number say lowering taxes is a priority. Significant percentages also want to see spending, taxes, and waste reduced and government reformed. There is clearly a mood of limited confidence that money will be spent wisely. For some, that is based on bitter experience. According to the focus group, "The failure of the Seattle Monorail Project was an item of discussion in many of the groups, as was the overall perception that the region can't build any major transportation improvements. Several groups referred to the failure of the 1960s-era light rail vote."

The general public warmth toward tolls fits that situation perfectly. People who don't want general tax increases can find a solution in user fees targeted for specific projects, and they are consoled by the fact that they will disappear when the job is done. But the poll results also suggest that policy-makers should be careful not to get too far ahead of the public. While people seem to become even more toll-friendly when they consider the alternatives and hear the benefits, they are still skeptical about the idea of tolls as permanent, revenue-generating fixtures on our roadways. Too, the surveys didn't consider voter attitudes after hearing arguments against tolls – the people polled only heard arguments for.

If tolls are implemented and they turn out to be higher, more widespread, or permanent, and if the benefits are not readily visible, there could be trouble with voters who are already in a sour mood.

It is also interesting to note how low on the scale many environmental initiatives rate as a priority. When people are asked an open question, eduction, congestion, and taxes are the big, urgent issues. But worry about global warming and the effects of pollution are pretty far down the list. Perhaps that's because people see those as long-term problems, not front-burner issues, or perhaps they are seen less as a local and more as a federal responsibility. But for a supposedly eco-conscious region, many much-discussed green issues barely rated. On the WSDOT survey, for example, protecting the environment (5 percent), affordable housing (3 percent), better growth management and land use (3 percent), and cleaning up Puget Sound (2 percent) were picked as priorities by only a few.

That suggests that the Pricing Task Force has some encouraging data to help guide it toward finding ways to make tolling more palatable, especially in dealing with a near-term need like 520. But the survey results make me wonder whether the general public really has its bigger picture priorities straight.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.