Fall in Seattle knows many names. The Big Dark. Recycled “gloomiest city” rankings. But for close watchers of City Hall, it has one moniker: budget season.
As our outgoing and partially lame duck city council wrestles with the minutiae of Mayor Durkan’s proposed $6.5 billion budget, newly re-elected Council Member Kshama “Comeback Kid” Sawant continues to press for her “People’s Budget.” The first votes will take place on Tuesday, November 19 and council chambers will surely be packed with red-shirted supporters heeding the councilmember’s call.
To help supporters distinguish between a “people’s budget” and a “business-as-usual budget,” Councilmember Sawant’s office published a simple quiz.
No, it won’t reveal which ’90s grunge band best represents your personality, but it will make abundantly clear where your values stand. Do you support $8.4 million for tiny houses or homeless sweeps? Do you want the city to spend $523,000 on youth training that could divert them from the criminal justice system or on police sergeant leadership development?
But one entry in this wonky pop quiz strikes of a straw man: Should we allocate $420,000 to hiring eviction defense attorneys for renters facing eviction or on outreach for a congestion pricing scheme to reduce downtown traffic and free up space for transit?
While most of these either/or choices fit in the same general category—tiny houses versus sweeps are two sides of how we spend money on our four-year-old civil state of emergency on homelessness—money for renters’ rights versus congestion pricing are two totally separate categories. One is about housing, the other about transportation.
The grouping is disingenuous. Of course Sawant wants the money to go toward defense attorneys—not a bad idea, mind you—but pitting it against congestion pricing is an irrelevant distraction. She is well aware that congestion pricing is unpopular. Shocker: Most people who drive don’t like to pay for the negative impacts of their behavior. And Sawant is on the record that after some dialectical materialistic analysis, or whatever it is that happens at Socialist Alternative geek out sessions, congestion pricing does not pass Marxist muster. Or at least, she can’t bring herself to support something that Mayor Durkan proposed.
Sawant is wrong and should let the congestion pricing budget line item proceed.
If done right, which means targeting high-income single-occupancy drivers during business hours and exempting or reducing tolls for lower-income carpoolers and off-hours drivers, then charging cars heading into downtown Seattle would be a tax on the rich and a boon for working people who rely on our extensive bus system to get around the city and the region.
For those unaware: In April 2018, Durkan announced a first-term goal to implement congestion pricing, or charging cars for driving into downtown. Such a scheme already exists in Gothenburg, London, Milan, Stockholm, and Singapore. New York City is set to implement the first congestion pricing scheme in the U.S. in 2021.
In May 2019, SDOT released a congestion pricing study sketching out in very broad strokes—and the devil to getting this right is totally in the as-yet-unspecified details—what a downtown driving toll could achieve and how it could operate.
The backlash chorus is swift and voluminous. The U.S. has begrudgingly accepted tolls to pay for specific road infrastructure projects—like the 520 bridge or the Highway 99 tunnel—and in some cases along long stretches of plain old highway, like much of Interstate 95 in the Northeast. But the idea of paying a surcharge to drive on downtown streets is anathema to the U.S. mythos that private cars have the right to travel anywhere there is asphalt. Those of us who own and drive cars—myself included—struggle to realize that we aren’t stuck in traffic. We are traffic.
Frankly, if you want to be traffic in most parts of Puget Sound, it doesn’t really matter. Want to contribute to the traffic mess along Highway 9 in Snohomish County? It will only suck for you and everyone else in a car. But in downtown Seattle, it does matter. It sucks for you, everyone else in a car, and the tens of thousands of people who choose to use our buses to get around.
Congestion pricing critics are fond of pointing out that we don’t have the enormous subway systems of the Londons and Singapores in the world. Until we do, we have no business trying to extract cars from downtown via toll.
The opposite is true. We are “America’s bus-lovingest town” and that is precisely why we need congestion pricing. While our failure to build a subway system in the 1970s is the Achilles heel that will plague us for the rest of this century, we’ve done a damn good job creating a bus system that will take you from downtown Seattle to just about anywhere that is moderately populated in a three-county region. But those buses can’t ferry people to and from Lakewood, Marysville, Everett, Lynwood, Tacoma, Federal Way, Issaquah, Auburn, Bellevue, Kent, at least a dozen other suburbs, and every neighborhood in the city if they’re stuck in downtown traffic.
There is only so much road space. The downtown grid is not going to magically expand—and no, axing our Basic Bike Network won’t accommodate all the drivers that want to maneuver downtown either. While our 3rd Avenue transit-only corridor is a bustopia, we have chokepoints. Lots of them. The 8 lurching its way up Denny Way at the juncture with Stewart and Yale. The 3 and 4 snagged on James Street at the I-5 on-ramps. The RapidRide C stalled in Pioneer Square.
I applaud SDOT for its granular efforts at urban acupuncture by painting a bus-only lane at a key intersection or engineering a queue jump at a traffic signal that allows a bus to sail past cars. But those aren’t good enough, as the quixotic efforts of August’s bus-lane-flag-waving hero demonstrated. Until Olympia gives the city permission to use its red-light cameras to sanction cars who block the bus and illegally drive in bus lanes, all that red paint does very little to prevent a single person from delaying 40 people on their way home.
As our congestion pricing study affirmed, the driver of that car blocking the bus lane is most likely to be earning more than $75,000 per year, which makes sense given that owning a car isn’t cheap to begin with and parking downtown comes with a hefty price tag—or an employer subsidy to a well-compensated employee.
If Council Member Sawant likes to tax the rich to benefit working people, she should realize that drivers can afford to pony up for the privilege of inconveniencing more than three dozen people, and that money can be reinvested in transit—we need every penny if Initiative 976 survives legal challenges—and affordable housing that will allow more lower-income people to live closer to our extensive transit system. (Mayor Durkan’s proposed ridehail tax would do the same.)
The study also points out that King County transit riders are more likely to be older, lower-income, and people with disabilities than the county’s general population. These are the people on the bus suffering through downtown traffic. These are the people Council Member Sawant purports to champion.
We’ve deployed lots of carrots, from employee-sponsored ORCA cards to Sal the Salmon cajoling us into “flipping our trip.” But the hard truth is that we need to deploy the sticks. Short of going full-on Oslo with a car-free city center, congestion pricing is the next best thing. It will cause some drivers to think twice about driving downtown. As for those who decide they don’t want to get downtown by bus, light rail, water taxi, ferry, streetcar, Sounder, ridehail, taxi, bike, solowheel, or their own two feet, they can chip in to keep downtown Seattle the multimodal paradise that it has become.
Besides, according to my Seattle Process Public Policy Timeline Calculator™, knowing this town we won’t actually implement congestion pricing until some time in the 2030s. By then light rail will go everywhere, even West Seattle and Ballard, and we can silence those critics who say wait until we have a true regional mass transit system. So let’s keep the ball rolling.