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Fill 'er up... with electrons
Credit: Kathleen Lumiere

Out in Seattle: Downtown tolls. In: Electric cars

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has quietly shelved what was to be the city’s highest-impact climate action: Her 2018 proposal for a toll on downtown driving.

Durkan had proposed downtown “congestion pricing,” or tolls, as part of a package of policies aimed at taming the city’s unrelenting emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

Transportation is the main source of the climate-wrecking pollution that the city has promised to eliminate by 2030.

Of nine “near-term actions” Durkan announced in April 2018, congestion pricing was projected to do the most good for the climate.

Depending on which trips would be tolled and how the revenue would be used, Durkan’s tolling proposal alone would reduce the total carbon dioxide emanating from Seattle by 9% to 20%, the city estimated.

Last fall, Durkan’s office notified the Seattle City Council that it was “pivoting” away from tolling, KUOW has learned.

“Given recent community feedback and the evolving nature of the dual crises of COVID-19 and systemic racism, the staff leading this effort are pivoting the conversation from specifically addressing 'Congestion Pricing' to instead focusing on how best to fund the transition to a more equitable transportation system,” the mayor’s office wrote to council members. “Pricing will be considered, along with an exploration of other progressive funding tools that can support [greenhouse gas] reduction and invest in a more equitable transportation system.”

A city spokesperson in March said the community feedback had come through the city’s advisory groups focused on transportation equity and environmental justice.

“Multiple members, including ourselves, voiced concerns of the regressivity of congestion pricing towards workers, especially those who have been displaced and have to drive into downtown Seattle for work,” Jill Mangaliman, executive director of the environmental justice advocacy group Got Green, said in an email to KUOW.

“Those from the [environmental justice] communities were in favor of having a more comprehensive transit system and progressive funding sources, instead of being punitive towards workers and communities priced out of the city.”

To flesh out Durkan’s original proposal, the Seattle Department of Transportation finished a yearlong study of congestion pricing in 2019. It examined other cities’ experiences and how to design a fair system in Seattle.

“Without a clear focus on social and racial equity, pricing can burden low-income people with new costs, just when skyrocketing housing costs are forcing many to move to the suburbs where driving may be the only option for most trips,” it warned.

The study also found that, by offering discounts or exemptions for low-income drivers and using toll revenue to benefit transit and traffic safety in poorer neighborhoods, congestion pricing could improve equity.

“The majority of people who drive downtown are high-income wage earners,” said Alex Hudson, executive director of the nonprofit Transportation Choices Coalition.

She said her group has lots of questions about how congestion pricing is implemented, including whether singling out downtown is the right approach, but generally supports the concept.

“I think that the conversation is just getting bigger about what do we actually really need to do,” she said.

Meanwhile, Seattle’s carbon pollution is getting bigger, too, as the years wear on and the climate keeps heating up.

Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions were 3.3% higher in 2018 than in 2016, according to the city’s latest tally of its climate impact.

“The fact of the matter is the voters would need to approve a congestion pricing plan,” Hudson said. “So those conversations take a long time.”

The Downtown Seattle Association, which represents hundreds of downtown businesses, referred a request for comment to its spin-off group, Commute Seattle.

Commute Seattle director Kevin Futhey said neither his transit-supporting group nor its parent organization had lobbied the city on congestion pricing.

He said there are good reasons to try to reduce driving downtown: Pre-pandemic, downtown Seattle had about 350,000 jobs and just 100,000 parking spaces.

“With the pandemic and the recession, I can see that there's probably a reason to reevaluate everything,” Futhey said.

“We’re generally very disappointed at the slow pace of climate action but don’t have a clear position about whether congestion pricing must be part of the solution,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union, in an email.

Environmental health advocates say the burdens of pollution fall disproportionately on vulnerable communities, and point to higher rates of asthma and shorter life expectancies in more polluted neighborhoods like Seattle’s Duwamish Valley.

In Sweden, childhood asthma rates dropped in half after Stockholm imposed congestion pricing in its city center in 2007, according to the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research.

Power shift

Durkan unveiled her newest climate proposal on March 17: A blueprint for transforming Seattle into a city where getting around usually relies on electricity, not petroleum.

The city’s new blueprint for electrifying transportation aims to make 90% of personal transport, 30% of freight traffic, and all taxi and carshare services carbon-neutral by 2030.

The city’s new blueprint for running most vehicles on electricity within the next nine years will require major investments in things like charging stations.

The newly announced targets are not as ambitious as the city’s “green new deal” law from 2019. That law made it the city’s goal to eliminate climate pollution from all sources in the city by 2030.

The new focus on electric vehicles does not signal any kind of retreat on trying to tame the number of cars clogging city streets, according to city officials.

“We definitely want people walking, riding a bike, taking transit any chance that they can get” said Andrea Pratt with Seattle’s Office of Sustainability & Environment. “But for those that can't shift their modes, and really for all other things like diesel, like freight, that [travel] needs to be electrified.”

Freight makes up a large chunk of traffic in Seattle, about one-fourth, according to the Office of Sustainability & Environment. Pratt said the market for electric trucks is not as far along as it is for electric cars.

“I can't mandate electrification or wave a magic wand and say everybody is going to drive EVs now,” she said.

There’s no cost estimate yet for the city’s electric-transportation blueprint or any plan for how to pay for it. City officials expect to have specific proposals and cost estimates by the end of the year.

Uber and Lyft both committed in 2020 to using only zero-emission vehicles in the United States by 2030.

As of December, electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles made up 2.4% of all cars registered in the Seattle City Light service area, about twice the statewide average, according to the Electric Power Research Institute.