Seattle wants to charge drivers for warming the climate

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, April 9, 2018

Seattle is trying to save its ambitious climate goals by curtailing car use.

A proposal to make drivers pay a fee for coming downtown is a linchpin in a list of initiatives aimed at reducing carbon emissions from the city’s transportation sector. The plan was released by Mayor Jenny Durkan, a Democrat, on Wednesday.

The city is facing a climate conundrum: It’s not ratcheting down carbon pollution from transportation fast enough to outrun a population boom.

“The city doesn’t get to its climate goals without cutting how many miles we’re driving on our roads and then electrifying the difference,” said Chris Bast, climate and transportation policy adviser in Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment.

Road emissions make up two-thirds of Seattle’s overall greenhouse gas output, a share that is twice as much as in the rest of the country. That’s because the city has a really clean grid thanks to nearby hydroelectric plants.

Even as the population grew 13 percent, carbon emissions from cars in Seattle fell 2 percent since 2008. But that’s far below the rate needed to meet its 58 percent reduction goal by 2030 or its carbon-neutral goal by 2050. The Paris climate agreement’s targets formally adopted by Seattle last year are even steeper.

Past mayors have tried, and failed, to reduce the gap.

City officials estimate the congestion pricing plan could reduce transportation emissions by 8 to 12 percent.

The proposal could be a risky political move, even in Seattle. Conservative groups are already blasting it. But climate hawks point to the support Seattleites have given to transit investments in recent years. Voters in the region approved a $54 billion light-rail extension in 2016.

And they’re slowly changing their behavior.

Since 2010, Seattle has added 60,000 jobs. During the same time, there’s been a drop in people driving alone to work, from 35 percent to 25 percent, according to data from Commute Seattle. They’ve used transit instead, which has seen a 5 percent bump to 48 percent.

That means per-capita transportation emissions have gone down, even as overall emissions remain about the same.

“We’ve clearly decoupled emissions from growth, and that’s key to our story,” Bast said.

Seattle is the country’s fastest-growing city. For its efforts, cars generally remain king: The number of cars owned in the city has gone up at the same rate as the number of people, according to census data crunched by The Seattle Times.

Congestion could become worse soon. Drivers will have to pay a toll to go through the Highway 99 tunnel replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct to cover construction expenses. That could push them into clogged downtown streets instead, causing a traffic mess.

“Road pricing could be a tool to help us manage the impact of that change on our system,” explained Bast.

Other initiatives on Durkan’s to-do list include requiring new construction to have electric vehicle charging and electrifying all for-hire vehicles. Revenue from the driving fee would be reinvested in transit and other low-carbon alternatives.

“There’s real positive and strong intent here,” said Vlad Gutman-Britten, Washington state director of Climate Solutions. “Those are all complementary strategies that can help address peoples’ frustration in the city.”

Less parking, less emissions?

The Seattle City Council also took action this week toward reducing dependence on cars.

On Tuesday, it adopted a package of reforms to parking requirements meant to reduce vacancy and boost alternatives to cars. It was a 7-1 vote.

One of the new changes would unbundle parking from rent. To reduce costs for those who don’t drive, certain residential and commercial spaces would be required to offer parking spaces separately from rent.

Another would allow more shared use of parking spaces. Others would boost bike parking and pedestrian access.

The overarching goal was to reduce dependence on cars, proponents said.

“You all have elected a council that is committed to doing climate work,” said City Councilman Mike O’Brien, according to Curbed Seattle.