Seattle could begin tolling city streets in an effort to reduce traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Wednesday. But it's not going to happen without voter approval.
Durkan admits it will be a tough ask, and that it will involve more than just getting people to pay more to drive.
"We have to make sure that it is paired up with meaningful transit because we can't ask people to get out of their single-occupancy vehicles unless there are meaningful options that they have, whether that is buses, walking, bikes, or other public transit," Durkan said at a press conference Wednesday.
It's just one of several initiatives laid out in Durkan's Climate Action plan, released Wednesday.
"Road pricing reduces travel times, increases travel reliability, encourages alternatives to single occupant vehicle trips, and improves safety,"
"I think all of us want to be in a city that is easy to get in and out of, that's pleasant to walk around, to bike around, to shop, to have cafes. And so one of the things we can do is look at congestion pricing to make sure that when we enter a certain core of the city, that if you're going to be the person driving in there, you've got to pay more money," Durkan said.
City Councilmember Mike O'Brien said the number of people driving into the downtown core for work is down to 25 percent, partly due to expensive parking.
"If we can get from 25 down to 20 percent and take a few more of those cars off the road, so people that are still driving would be able to get there easier. The buses, which is our top priority that are on those streets would be able to move more efficiently through town," O'Brien said.
The proposal comes just a few days after the mayor put a hold on the Center City Connector streetcar project due to cost overruns.
It's too early to say what Seattle's congestion pricing would be or how it would be implemented. The Seattle Department of Transportation is conducting a study.
In an interview with The Seattle Times, Durkan said she hoped the "congestion pricing" could be in place before the end of her first term in 2021, but she did not make that specification during her press conference.
The voters, however, will get the final say. O'Brien said that is state law.
"We have to get public support for it," O'Brien said.
Seattle is six months away from the expected opening of the new Highway 99 tunnel that will replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. That tunnel will be tolled -- although state regulators have not yet determined what those tolls will be. Drivers are expected to avoid the tolls by driving on Seattle streets, thereby making them more congested.
"That will be potentially devastating to the city if we don't have some tools to reverse that," O'Brien said.
Durkan hinted that other large cities around the world have similar congestion-pricing programs in place.
"We love it when we're there. Seattle's going to be that kind of city. Let's do it intentionally," Durkan said.
O'Brien said cities like London, Oslo, Stockholm, Singapore, and Milan all have systems in place in which drivers who bring their cars into the downtown core in the middle of the day pay a fee.
And this isn't the first time Seattle has considered street tolling. They did a study on variable tolling back in 2009.
Durkan says this is not escalating what some call a war on cars.
"What we want to do is get people out of single-occupancy vehicles into other alternatives. To do that, we have to have other alternatives that are real," Durkan said.
Durkan noted the city's new parking regulations, which allows builders to forgo adding parking if they are located near frequent transit service.