Sheldon bill blocking Seattle tolling plan advances to Senate Rules Committee

OLYMPIA – A bill that would block Seattle’s plans to impose tolls on downtown streets was approved Tuesday by the Senate Transportation Committee, with bipartisan support.

Senate Bill 5104, sponsored by state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, would prohibit city and county governments from imposing tolls. Any toll would have to be approved by the state Legislature.

The 9-5 committee vote advances the bill to the Senate Rules Committee, which determines the bills that will be voted upon by the full Senate.

The bill is prompted by Seattle’s plans to toll downtown streets to reduce traffic. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has said she hopes to impose tolls by 2021, and the city so far has allocated $1.2 million to study the concept.

“I think it’s finally beginning to dawn on the Legislature that this is a statewide issue,” Sheldon said.  “Do we really want a society where only the wealthy can afford to drive?

“Advocates like to use friendly terms, like ‘congestion management.’ But that doesn’t hide the fact that these proposals are designed to make driving too expensive for people like you and me. Parking in Seattle is bad enough, but if the city starts charging for access to its streets, it will hurt people of low incomes, senior citizens, commuters, tradespeople and people from districts like mine.

“People in my district live miles beyond the reach of any bus line, yet we still have to travel to the city for medical appointments, educational opportunities, entertainment and business. Every day thousands of people drive to work from beyond the city limits. All of us have an interest in what Seattle does, yet none of us outside the city limits has a say in electing the mayor and city council.

“If local-government officials in Seattle want to price the poor and the middle class off its streets, this radical change in thinking ought to be debated in the Legislature. Everyone who is affected ought to have a chance to weigh in. Our transportation network was built for all of us. We’ve paid for the roads once already, with taxes for construction and maintenance. We shouldn’t have to pay again to use them.”

State law currently permits cities and counties to impose tolls. But Sheldon notes that the Legislature granted them authority in an era when tolling was used only to pay for the construction and operation of specific projects, such as highways and bridges. Seattle would be the first city in America to use tolling to discourage people from driving.