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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Chicago Considers Congestion Tax

posted by on June 14 at 11:39 AM

Chicago is the latest city—after New York, London, and several European cities—to seriously consider a congestion tax on vehicles entering the central city. The money would be used to fund the Chicago Transit Authority. Not surprisingly, the idea is faring poorly in an online poll hosted by the Chicago Tribune, whose readers oppose the idea 66 to 34 percent. (Meanwhile, more people than ever—77 percent of all Americans—are driving to work alone.)

But congestion pricing may be inevitable, and not just for Chicago. After all, many cities already tax traffic on bridges into and out of their borders—an acknowledgment that congestion does have a price, and that drivers are the ones who should have to pay it. Mayor Nickels?

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I think we need to get a rapid transit system before we can start thinking about a congestion tax. NYC, London, and Chicago all have grade separated transit systems, whereas we just have buses that plod along as slow as or slower than SOV traffic.

Posted by Tiffany | June 14, 2007 11:41 AM

I liked the Chicago Transit Authority's first album.

Posted by elswinger | June 14, 2007 11:46 AM

From the Wikipedia link:
"Facing rising levels of congestion, European governments are giving serious consideration to nationwide road pricing schemes which would exploit the new Galileo satellite positioning system. Every vehicle would have to contain a satellite tracking device which would determine which roads were being driven along, for how far and at what time of day. This information would then be sent to a central computer system." [Emphasis mine]

Now that's just Orwellian. Put in a toll booth, for chrissake.

Right on, Tiffany. Rapid transit=lower congestion. For example, nobody with half a brain drives into Manhattan.

Posted by bitch on heels | June 14, 2007 11:49 AM

Just as you post this I get this in my inbox:

Congestion Pricing for Seattle?

Also today, should there be a toll to drive in Seattle during rush hour? It's called congestion pricing. London and Stockholm have congestion pricing. New York, Miami, San Diego are considering it. So is Seattle

Call in your thoughts before the show to The Conversation feedback line, (206) 221-3663 or send email to Join us on the air by calling (206) 543-KUOW or (800) 289-KUOW.

I say hell yes.

Posted by Enigma | June 14, 2007 11:49 AM

I'd actually support tolls during peak driving times. Seattle, nay, Washington State is so spoiled when it comes to taxes that it boggles my mind how we actually have any government at all here.

i was in illinois last weekend and I had to pay a toll 4 seperate times, at a net cost of 5 dollars even.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 14, 2007 11:53 AM

A congestion tax assumes that the main commute is suburb -> Seattle. The reverse commute is frequently more congested than the normal one.

Posted by zzyzx | June 14, 2007 12:03 PM

You think we're spoiled, Bellevue, you should see the rest of the country. WA's taxes are higher than most states. There are a lot of taxes here that people don't have in Vegas, Texas, Arkansas, etc.

As for tolls, yes, whether or not people like it (and seriously, what you do expect people to think of tolls? 'Hey, do you want to pay to use this road?' Geez, what do you think people will say?). Use it to fund transit expansion service for the people who will inevitably back off of driving into Seattle.

Posted by Gomez | June 14, 2007 12:04 PM

To make a real dent in congestion, it would need to affect more than Seattle. I live in Redmond, work in Kirkland. In the past I've commuted from Bellevue to Redmond, from Shoreline to Bellevue, and from (egads) Redmond to Redmond.

Metro is somewhat decent at getting people to/from Downtown Seattle, Boeing, and other "big" employers. It's getting from suburb to suburb that takes 2-3 buses and over an hour to go the 8 miles that I can drive in 15 minutes....

Posted by JenK | June 14, 2007 12:06 PM

what are these taxes gomez?

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 14, 2007 12:06 PM

I'm going to go ahead and say no to congestion pricing for Seattle. I've lived in Seattle most of my life, never owned a car, didn't even learn to drive until I was 28, but I think a congestion tax in Seattle at this stage would cause more problems than it would solve.

Other cities that are enacting congestion taxes-- particularly London --have much worse congestion than Seattle over a much much larger area. Part of why it's a generalized tax and not a road-specific toll is that these other cities become giant parking lots for about 6 hours out of the day. Ever surface street, every freeway, every ramp is packed solid with cars.

So there are two incentives for a place like that to have a congestion tax. One is that the tax creates a disincentive to address a huge problem that can't be addressed any other way. The other is that a general congestion tax in a place like that has the potential to bring a lot of revenue into the city government.

A generalized congestion tax in Seattle actually wouldn't raise all that much money, compared to the cost of building and developing mass transit or rapid transit infrustructure. Additionally, Seattle could actually address most of its congestion with tolls targeted at a dozen or so main highways and bridges. The reason that's better than a generalized congestion tax is that it would bring in about the same amount of money, it's easier to implement, and it would alienate many fewer people.

Posted by Judah | June 14, 2007 12:11 PM

Fuck no on congestion tax, tolls, or higher gas tax. I want sales taxes, sales taxes and more sales taxes. Make those who don't contribute to the auto problems pay for them! Make transit riders and bike riders pay for what car and truck drivers should be paying for!

Pile on more sales taxes, damn it.

Posted by lower middle class bike rider | June 14, 2007 12:14 PM

Once again, ECB on an anti-car tirade. I can only dream that one day, ECB will channel her energy into convincing the city of Seattle to BUILD real mass transit instead of trying to penalize commuters who have no option other than driving. But then, it really is easier to piss and moan rather than help, isn't it?

Seriously, somebody buy her a minivan so she can STFU.

Posted by montex | June 14, 2007 12:15 PM

Just for context - and this only represents large employers who participate in WA State's Commute Trip Reduction program - the drive alone rate for those employers state-wide was 66% in 2005 (compared to the national rate of 77%), and in King County: 59%. City of Seattle: 41% We have congestion, no doubt.. but we do a lot better here than in most parts of the country in terms of using alternatives to driving alone.

Posted by Rick | June 14, 2007 12:16 PM

What 11 said. Except the opposite.

Posted by DOUG. | June 14, 2007 12:17 PM

love it or hate it guys, but the reality is that a congestion tax in Seattle won't stand a chance for quite some time.

Posted by investigatory journalist | June 14, 2007 12:21 PM

I hate to say I've never been to Chicago, aside from its airports. But the other day I was leafing through this Web site of Chicago pics, and man, I was just blown away by just how beautiful the place is.

Y'know, between the Tim Eyman, Joel Connelly, Seattle Times anti-mass-transit crowd and the Sierra Club, Erica C. Barnett, Josh Feit pro-mass-transit-until-it-comes-to-actually-building-something crowd, I'm thinking it may be not 10 years but 20 years until we get light rail that actually goes anywhere. So it's hard not to start thinking, "Maybe it's time to bail on Seattle." And between those Chicago views and the fact Chicago still has an NBA team and the El and the fact that Chicago is pragmatic enough to seriously consider a congestion tax, I gotta think, "Maybe Chicago. Maybe Chicago."

Auto-generated response from lesser Seattle populist: Hey, don't let the door hit your ass on the way out. And take a few of your kind with you, why don't you?

Posted by cressona | June 14, 2007 12:56 PM

Why not just impose a flat 1 percent income tax on everyone working in Seattle to pay for more transit?

I'd vote for that - and our constitution makes it LEGAL.

Little known facts ...

and way better than a regressive sales tax or tolls ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | June 14, 2007 1:06 PM

Cressona @16:
The tug-of-war between the regressives and progressives around here certainly can be annoying (although it's mostly the regressives who annoy me).

But Chicago gets really damn cold in the winter, and even though it's a truly big city, it's midwestern through and through.

Posted by Sean | June 14, 2007 1:08 PM

oh, and @7 - you're wrong. Even the Wall Street Journal (I get the print edition) says that we are something like 38th for taxes.

Stop lying about our tax burden.

Posted by Will in Seattle | June 14, 2007 1:08 PM

As a Chicagoan who is moving to Seattle in the next year, let me say that Chicago's not as progressive as it may seem. As a Chicagoan, I'm fairly skeptical at the pure intentions of the tax. While the intent on paper is to help the crumbling and aging transit infastructure, ultimately the city (read: Mayor Daley and pals) will line their pockets with the money generated from this tax. Still - I'm in favor of this as a non-car owner and non-driver. Congestion taxes and tolls are the only truly fair way to pay for roads that are increasingly crowded and expensive to build and maintain. For the last century auto and oil industries have grown and thrived on a complete government (read: taxpayer) subsidy. I'm not even talking about the complete toll on the environment. Enough is enough.

People complain about change and usage taxes, but unless they're mandated, change does not come about. That's the role of government. To bring about positive change. If it was voluntary, think how many things would never be regulated...

Posted by Andy | June 14, 2007 1:12 PM

17, thats stupid and you know it.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 14, 2007 1:13 PM

You couldn't just congestion tax the city, cause it would cause even more industry and jobs to move to the suburbs or whereever. They should congestion tax every highway in the region.

Posted by Angry Andrew | June 14, 2007 1:13 PM

Erica C. Barnett:

But congestion pricing may be inevitable, and not just for Chicago. After all, many cities already tax traffic on bridges into and out of their borders—an acknowledgment that congestion does have a price, and that drivers are the ones who should have to pay it. Mayor Nickels?

I'm coming to the conclusion that Erica -- and Josh Feit for that matter -- work not for Dan Savage but rather for Kemper Freeman.

Take this line, "After all, many cities already tax traffic on bridges into and out of their borders..." Well, wouldn't it make sense to actually advocate for doing that very thing before trying to scare the shit out of people by talking about a sweeping congestion tax? If I'm someone who's already reluctant to support tolls on bridges, I'm going to be that much more resistant if I think the real agenda is something much more draconian. This is the same reason Israelis aren't necessarily inclined to do land-for-peace deals with Palestinians whose real preference is to drive Israel into the sea. "Give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile." Well, you end up not even getting the inch.

And wouldn't you know, when it comes to a tangible tolling proposal -- namely the 520 bridge replacement funding package -- where are Erica and Josh? Yup, they're against it. So let's get the scoreboard here:

  • Real tolling proposal: Erica's against.
  • Fantasy tolling proposal sure to inspire a backlash against all tolling proposals: Erica's for.

And you tell me Erica's not actually working for Kemper.

Also, just looking at this from a market perspective, wouldn't it make sense to make the Eastside more transit-oriented and to give more transit alternatives into and out of Seattle before you even mention the idea of congestion pricing? Pretty soon, all kinds of businesses figure, "Hey, maybe it's time relocate to the suburbs." Yeah, a city of Seattle congestion tax would be a fantastic boost to suburban developers like good, ol' Kemper.

Posted by cressona | June 14, 2007 1:13 PM

Chicago is a hell of a city, and actually lives up to it's city name. Unfortunately it has problems just like any other city, but for some people they can live with them.

I'd move to chicago, ny, dc, or sf, post UW. Sure each one of them has a downside, but i havent been there long enough to see them and bitching about one's city is never a bad thing.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 14, 2007 1:15 PM

looking at it now, there needs to be more exodus of people from downtown to the suburbs so this becomes a suburban problem and not the city's

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 14, 2007 1:22 PM

Cressona: What the hell are you talking about? We're both for tolling 520... and I-90.

Posted by ECB | June 14, 2007 1:36 PM

"It's midwestern through and through."

I'm not even going to pretend to know what that means. But let's just say that as someone who has actually lived in the Midwest, I can tell you that there's a big divide between the Chicago metropolitan area and the surrounding area. But if you only go to tourist trap areas, you're bound to get that impression (as you no doubt would at the Louvre or Roman Forum).

And in terms of cultural opportunities, it can't be beat. World class museums and theatre companies.

But I guess unlike the coasts, people sometimes actually say hello to strangers. Perhaps that's what you mean.

But yeah. The winters suck balls.

Posted by Ryno | June 14, 2007 1:40 PM

Erica C. Barnett:

Cressona: What the hell are you talking about? We're both for tolling 520... and I-90.

Well, I don't have to look far for an example, Erica. How about your story in this week's paper?
Green Gravitas.

We finally, finally have a ballot measure that would make 50 miles of grade-separated light rail and real highway tolling a reality, and well, Erica can't disguise her contempt for it. It's a bit like a politician who keeps saying "I'm for mass transit." And then when a real mass transit proposal comes up, they say, "I'm against this particular proposal." The politician has the luxury of always opposing mass transit (in reality) while still maintaining the rhetorical pretense of supporting it.

BTW, here's a passage from that story worth pointing out:

Transportation Choices Coalition, which has developed a reputation for capitulating to roads supporters in exchange for environmental compromises,...

Transportation Choices did anything but capitulate in 2002 when they campaigned against R-51, the nickel gas-tax increase that would have gone overwhelmingly to roads. And they pissed off a lot of their usual Olympia allies by doing so.

Posted by cressona | June 14, 2007 1:57 PM

Being midwestern isn't a bad thing if it's coupled with a big city atmosphere that moderates some of the negative ideas of the midwest.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 14, 2007 2:08 PM

I don't have real numbers, but I'll bet the percentage of daily King County car trips that pass through any likely "congestion zone" is 10% or less. Most of the traffic in the area, and every area in the US, is suburb-to-suburb. And look at 520 now: much, much more congested in the evening coming BACK from the Eastside to Seattle. Seattle is a bedroom community for the most part, except for the downtown core, and that is currently the only part of the region that is adequately served by transit.

Putting a congestion tax here would only serve to make Bellevue the primary economic engine of the region a decade earlier than would otherwise happen.

Posted by Fnarf | June 14, 2007 2:10 PM

9. Look at sales taxes, Bellevue. In most states, it's about 7.5-8%. Here, it's closer to 10%. YOur car tabs are also way higher. If I wanted to sit here and nitpick the point, I could think of others.

If you've actually lived in places other than WA and the major metropoli, you would understand my point.

Posted by Gomez | June 14, 2007 2:44 PM
Seattle is a bedroom community for the most part

That hasn't been true for very long, in the scheme of things, and doesn't have to remain so. Furthermore, even a bedroom community needs better transit past a certain point of density. See: Brooklyn and, more and more, Manhattan.

Posted by Judah | June 14, 2007 2:45 PM

@ 27 and 29:
What do I mean by "midwestern through and through?"

I'm not talented enough to capture the essence of midwestern culture in a blog comment. But spend a few weeks Chicago and New York back to back, and you'll see what I mean.

BTW - I grew up in the midwest.

Posted by Sean | June 14, 2007 2:47 PM

I have enough relatives adn terrible trips to understand that peoria is crappy but chicago is awesome. and ive lived enough in seattle to not get it twisted.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 14, 2007 3:04 PM

Gomez: I've lived in plenty of other places and I understand your point well enough to disagree with it. Washington State has lower taxation, on the whole, than most other states. We're also one of only 9 states in the Union without a state income tax. So yeah, we have a high sales tax. On balance it still works out to less taxation than the residents of most other states experience.

Posted by Judah | June 14, 2007 3:12 PM

Judah: Our state/local tax structure is in the top 5 of WORST (most regressive) in the country.

We need to vote NO in November, and there will be a better tax structure proposed for the roads/transit improvements next time.

Posted by wilco | June 14, 2007 5:06 PM

Re: R-51--yeah, TCC did campaign against it. That, however, was five years ago, and a lot their positions have changed.

Posted by ECB | June 14, 2007 5:10 PM

Don't look to Nickels. Downtown Seattle does not really have congestion problems. 520 and 405 have congestion problems, so they're where the tolls should go from a congestion reduction viewpoint.

Unfortunately, because the political class of the Eastside is retarded, they'll never agree to it. They're adding general purpose lanes to 405 even though the HOV lanes are full.

Posted by Steve | June 14, 2007 5:20 PM

a congestion tax is just a toll on a particular area. Tolls work.

We pay $2 or $3 to use a public parking space -- usage fees work.
Ditto for the congestion tax. It works. Revenue for raods or transit -- less congestion -- less pollution and global warming -- more fair than higher sales tax.
Unfortunately for Seattle, if a proposal works, but hurts anyone, we won't adopt it because they will object and it wouldn't be nice! So we will continue to claim we are green leaders while doing everything to build more roads funded by soak-the-poor sales taxes and cause more social injustice, more congestion and more global warming.

Posted by moraleconomics | June 14, 2007 6:12 PM

Erica C. Barnett: Re: R-51--yeah, TCC did campaign against it. That, however, was five years ago, and a lot their positions have changed.

A little more recent history you may have forgotten, Erica. The whole coupling of Sound Transit 2 and RTID that you're fundamentally opposed to? In 2006 when your buddy Ed Murray pushed it, Transportation Choices Coalition fought it.

Posted by cressona | June 14, 2007 6:36 PM

I'm for it. The only time I'm downtown, I'm there on business, so it's another tax write-off for me, and since I have to drive for business, I'd appreciate fewer asshats on the road.

Sigh. There's really only one thing I miss about my old job, and that's walking 3.5 miles to work at six in the morning. I fucking hate driving.

Posted by Gitai | June 14, 2007 7:55 PM

Yeah, I get touchy about these things. Growing up in the Midwest and living in Boston will give you a massive chip on your shoulder. I won't deny that Chicago has Midwestern characteristics, but when I compare that to the hipster doofuses of Brooklyn, that's a good thing.

Plus, I'm still really upset about that Nicholas Lemann piece in the New Yorker where he implied in that "sophisticated" and "Midwestern" were dichotomous.

Posted by Ryno | June 14, 2007 8:19 PM

I'm totally against congestion pricing until we get some real transit solutions in place. That includes just being able to navigate downtown (like a downtown circular, or even extending the monorail down 5th Avenue).

Even then, like many have said the problem is not congestion downtown, it's congestion once you've left downtown. A lot of the people on the 405 between Bellevue and Tukwila never see this side of the lake.

Posted by Dave Coffman | June 15, 2007 12:20 AM

A London style toll system is wrong for Seattle. It would simply send businesses and jobs to the burbs and lead to more sprawl and lousy traffic in those places - Kemper Freeman's dream.

Downtown Seattle is handsdown the state's largest job center. I work downtown. Most of the time traffic in pretty reasonable compared to freeways around here. Most people take the bus or the ferry because the service is pretty good and the cost of parking is out of sight.

And the City will increase the tax on monthly parking next month - which is a form of tolling cars because most of the high cost parking in Seattle in downtown.

Freeway tolls may be a good idea at some point. But nobody really knows whether they'll work (even though the PSRC has done a study that shows some promise).

But the big problem with these ideas (as being promoted by the local Sierra Club right now as an alternative to light rail) is that they are not ready from a technology perspective and won't be anytime soon. On the political side it would probably take at least a decade for Olympia to enact the laws that would be required to make anything really happen and protect people's privacy and assure the system doesn't just work for the rich

In others words, these ideas offer no quick fixes for Seattle. Light rail is about to help, especially the part that would be built past Northgate. And we ought to have far better transit on the ground before we even consider these toll dreams, so a real alternative is already available if and when the toll thing happens.

Oh. And nobody wants to toll I-90 to pay for the new 520 bridge except the state treasurer, who is leaving office and actually has about zero say on the matter. He does enjoy headlines. If people vote yes this fall, there'll be enough money to take the I-90 toll idea completely off the table.

Posted by Tarl | June 15, 2007 3:56 AM

Tarl: But the big problem with these ideas (as being promoted by the local Sierra Club right now as an alternative to light rail) is that they are not ready from a technology perspective and won't be anytime soon.

Hey, if the Sierra Club is looking for alternatives to light rail, there's one technology they could tap that's already there. This from local historian Walt Crowley:

"The local leftist distrust of big capital and land use projects goes back to Metro and Forward Thrust. The counterculture left actually opposed light rail in 1968 and 1970, proposing bridle trails instead (I kid you not)."

Posted by cressona | June 15, 2007 7:13 AM

bridle trails...LMAO!

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 15, 2007 9:54 AM

"put in a toll booth" ...anyone who thinks a toll booth could be placed at any of the 100 intersections entering the area in question is a loon or probably hasn't been to chicago.

Posted by beboppo | June 15, 2007 11:19 AM

This congestion tax is a very bad idea for the city and will only further aggravate business owners and residents who are already being taxed to the hilt and encourage them to up and leave for the burbs or other cites such as Austin or Las Vegas where they welcome in new business and residents with open arms. A tax like this will basically tell everyone that "No you are not welcome here so go away!!! There are too many people here already." Nice messege to send to the general public and what about those that are from out of town, visiting relatives, holding conventions, vacationing? Do we want to send that warm welcoming greeting of looking for a hand out as soon as they travel into the city to them as well? Chicago is a nice city, but by NO means is it NY! Chicago if anything is just a NY wannabe with half as many stores, horrible mass transit that has fallen into complete disarray over the past 10 years, outdated roads, and crappy weather. OH, but there are a lot of restaurants here, so if you want to get fat, Chicago is the place for you!

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