March 5, 2008
Residents of the Central Puget Sound region have been stuck in traffic for too long, and the situation is getting worse. Voter rejection of the Proposition 1 roads-and-transit measure should make us ask how we can make a difference — without waiting for a new package of projects that may take a decade to finish.
It is time to look at a broader policy of road pricing — to immediately improve mobility for everyone.
With the uncertainty of traditional revenue sources, we need a new approach that both addresses the growing demand for infrastructure and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, offers more alternatives to driving alone, and moves people and goods safely, reliably and on time.
One tool, which has seen only limited use in this state, would be charging for the use of roadways.
In the past, tolls have been imposed to support construction of major projects. We at the Municipal League of King County support a broader use of tolling to increase traffic flow through congested corridors, while at the same time recovering costs from those using the roads. This is how we price other goods and services when there is limited supply.
The Legislature is poised to pass a bill that would allow tolling to start soon on the Highway 520 Bridge in order to help fund construction of a new span and to meet the terms of a $135 million federal grant.
As an initial step, we support early tolling on the 520 Bridge (pictured at right), with variable pricing based on time of day and traffic conditions.
Higher pricing during high-use hours, lower pricing at less-congested times, has support across the political spectrum, in large part because it works so well to adjust supply and demand, and is paid by those actually using the roads. It is a user fee, not a general tax. Even users who initially opposed road fees embrace them because they reduce congestion and save time.
The concept is already familiar to anyone who uses a cellphone: Fees drop at times of day when the network is less busy.
Former Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald has demonstrated with rice and a funnel how traffic in this area hits a tipping point: Add just a few more cars or trucks on a road at peak times and traffic slows to a crawl.
Studies by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Puget Sound Regional Council indicate the same thing. They show that half the traffic at peak times is discretionary and that user fees work to encourage people to take those trips at other times. Moving as little as 8 percent of the trips to other times can increase flows dramatically.
Once road-pricing systems are in place, drivers have less need to add a "congestion cushion" to their trips in order to be on time for work, a flight or a meeting. Studies show that if a typical trip without congestion takes 20 minutes, drivers have learned that they need to allow 40 to 60 minutes, because they don't know when to expect a problem. This is wasted time, even when traffic ends up moving smoothly.
Variable tolls may be the one thing we can do that would have the most-positive effect, at the least cost, and take the least time to put into effect.
Reducing traffic jams not only saves time, but will save gas, lower carbon-dioxide emissions and help the economy by getting people where they need to be on time.
Many specifics are yet to be determined, including how to provide alternatives for those who can least afford to pay. The public should join the discussion on how to fairly and effectively implement variable tolls.
But, we should move quickly. Polls show that the No. 1 complaint in the region is traffic. Most feel that progress is far too slow to see any meaningful change for decades.
Variable road pricing could make a difference within months.
Bradley Meacham is the chairman of the Municipal League of King County. Steve Marshall is a member of the Municipal League's transportation committee.