Tolls could cut congestion, test shows
For about eight months, drivers in 275 Seattle-area households agreed to pay for something the rest of us get for free: The right to drive...
Seattle Times staff reporter
For about eight months, drivers in 275 Seattle-area households agreed to pay for something the rest of us get for free: The right to drive on the region's freeways and streets.
They were guinea pigs in a pioneering study that explored how motorists' behavior might change if they had to pay tolls — not just on a few bridges or highways, but on almost every road with a yellow center line.
Researchers established virtual tolls ranging from a nickel to 50 cents a mile. They gave participants pre-paid accounts of between $600 and $3,000, and told them they could keep whatever the tolls didn't eat up.
The experiment ended in February. Preliminary results, released this month, suggest that if such so-called "road pricing" were widespread, it could make a significant dent in traffic.
But don't expect to start paying to commute down Interstate 5 or Aurora Avenue anytime soon.
Transportation policymakers are intrigued by the study, but they say there still are too many questions and too little experience with tolls in the Seattle area to adopt them across the entire road network. And the public isn't ready for such a radical plan, they add.
"The politics of that is just too tough," said Richard Ford, chairman of the state Transportation Commission.
Participants in the Puget Sound Regional Council's "Traffic Choices" study had devices mounted on their dashboards in late 2004 and early 2005 that tracked their travel and transmitted the information to a central computer.
Tolls, which varied by road and time of day, were deducted electronically from the pre-paid accounts, which were funded by the study's sponsors and sized to match how much participants had been driving before the study.
The promise of keeping some of that money proved to be a powerful incentive. Nearly 80 percent of the participants drove less than they did before, or they changed their routes or travel times to avoid the highest tolls, said Matthew Kitchen, the study's director.
When the study was finished, the average payout was nearly $700 per household.
When other variables are factored out, Kitchen said, participants took 5 percent fewer auto trips and drove 2.5 percent fewer miles each weekday because of the tolls.
The drop was even more dramatic during peak-traffic periods, when tolls were highest: 10 percent fewer trips and 4 percent fewer miles in the morning, 6 percent fewer trips and 11 percent fewer miles at night.
Participant Kathi Hardwick, an executive assistant at a downtown Bellevue bank, started riding the bus to work from her home in Bothell. It wasn't as convenient as driving, she said, but it saved her about $5 each way in tolls on Interstate 405.
She also began combining errands and driving less on weekends.
Hardwick said the changes have stuck, even though the experiment has ended.
"If I had not participated in this test, I would not have done as much," she said. "When you see what it costs when you get on the freeway, it really has an impact."
Greater in the real world?
Such systemwide tolls could have an even greater impact in the real world than the preliminary study results indicate, Kitchen said.
For starters, a real-world toll scheme presumably would reduce congestion, he said. Traffic Choices participants didn't get that benefit in return for the tolls they paid.
Real toll payers also might be motivated to drive even less because they would be paying out of their own pockets, not with cash provided by the study.
Finally, systemwide tolls could lead to long-term changes in driving behavior — moving closer to work, or finding a job closer to home — that Traffic Choices drivers had no reason to make, Kitchen said.
Kitchen plans to produce a preliminary report by January for the Federal Highway Administration, which is paying most of the study's $3.1 million cost. Then he and others will spend the next year drilling deeper into the results.
Among other things, they hope to learn whether participants' responses to tolls vary by income level, and whether they cut back more on freeway driving than lower-priced driving on arterial streets. They also will look at how much revenue systemwide tolls might generate for highway improvements.
While the experiment demonstrated it's feasible to calculate and collect tolls using a global-positioning system and cellular technology, Kitchen said other questions would have to be answered before such an approach could be adopted for real.
A big one is privacy. A survey of Traffic Choices participants showed the use of technology that could produce a record of when and where they drove was a big issue for many.
This month, Kitchen has been briefing transportation policymakers on the preliminary results. Ford, the state Transportation Commission chairman, said the study shows tolls potentially could reduce congestion as well as raise money for road projects.
King County Councilwoman Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac, another regional transportation leader, said tolls could balance the "supply" of roads and demand for them. "There aren't very many other commodities that are free that we can use whenever we want," she said.
But both she and Ford say that officials need to demonstrate the benefits to drivers on a smaller scale before seriously considering systemwide tolls.
As an example, both pointed to a state pilot project to open HOV lanes on Highway 167 between Auburn and Renton to solo drivers willing to pay a toll — presumably in return for a faster, more predictable trip.
Not everyone is moving as cautiously as Washington. In the Netherlands, Dutch government officials plan to impose systemwide tolls by 2012. They're interested in the Traffic Choices results, Kitchen said.
But state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said even constituents in his green, liberal district complain to him about the prospect of tolls on a new Highway 520 bridge.
"This isn't Amsterdam — this is the West," he said.
"One of the things we have to understand is whether the culture for this [tolls] exists here," he added. "It doesn't now. It don't think that's going to be easy to overcome."
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or email@example.com