Time for Seattle-area drivers to pay up? Tolling doesn’t get much love, but it eases gridlock

Traffic around Seattle is bad and getting worse. Solutions are scarce. But a groundbreaking local study — now a decade old — and the experience of other cities may point toward a remedy, albeit an unpopular one: Pay to use the roads.

Nearly 15 years ago, a local transportation planning agency tried a novel experiment.

They got about 400 volunteers and, using plug-in GPS devices, tracked their driving — distances, times, locations — for 18 months.

After a few months of tracking to develop baseline data, each driver was tolled for every mile they drove, with prices varying depending on the roadway and the time of day.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

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Drive to the corner store at midnight? That’s free. Drive on Interstate 5 at 5 p.m.? That costs 50 cents a mile.

Tolls showed up on the GPS device and were deducted from a driving budget that had been assigned to each driver. At the end of the experiment, each volunteer kept the cash that was left over.

“I found myself watching the meter go up, up, up,” one participant said. “And that influenced my choices.”

Another said, “Even if the meter wasn’t there, I would have changed my travel habits after seeing the first invoice.”

The study, conducted by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), found…

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