Realizing that freeways are not free
Every once in a while there’s a truth that everybody knows, but that no one will acknowledge. And when someone finally says it aloud, it sounds shocking. Like this:
… what we’re doing now isn’t working. Not for drivers, taxpayers or the environment. We can’t tax and build our way out of this.
That’s Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat in his column this week, talking about what most people in Seattle already know: the area’s freeway system is flat broke and busted. Even the biggest package ever to go before voters — this fall’s $16 billion roads-and-transit measure — won’t pay for the toughest infrastructure problems, like rebuilding the 520 floating bridge, and is only a fraction of the estimated $40 billion needed over the next few decades. Moreover, even that full $40 billion isn’t expected to reduce congestion much. So what can we do?
Enter the occasion for Westneat’s column: King County executive Ron Sims, who has stepped up (big PDF), yet again, with a remarkably visionary plan: region-wide congestion pricing. Wow. Without getting into the details here, Sims is proposing what is perhaps the only thing that could simultaneously generate the money, reduce congestion, and ease environmental impacts — all without raising taxes. (In fact, that’s why Sightline Institute has been preaching congestion pricing for years.)
If it all sounds too good to be true, it is.
Congestion pricing has a big downside for politicians: it raises the cost of driving and it is therefore often considered politically radioactive. In this case, the fate of Sims’ proposal depends partly on whether Seattle-area voters are ready to acknowledge publicly what everybody seems to already know privately — that we’re facing a series of bad choices. We need to try something else.
To his credit, Sims is showing stunning leadership and there’s even some early sign that it may pay off for him: you can read all about his plan in Washington CEO, which has smart coverage and an approving editorial.
To be fair, congestion pricing isn’t perfect. And Westneat, who is fast becoming one of my favorite local thinkers, correctly points out in his column that there are some real concerns about the plan, the biggest of which is the potential for adverse effects on lower-income people. But, as Westneat notes, the current system isn’t working; it’s already founded on terribly regressive taxes; and there may be some common-sense solutions to the equity problems of congestion pricing.