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Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan talks congestion pricing at the Bloomberg Sustainable Business Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Earlier this year, New York became the first city in America to adopt congestion pricing, a.k.a. tolls that drivers pay when they enter the most congested neighborhoods during the busiest times. The landmark policy was once seen as political poison in the U.S. but growing traffic across the country has cities considering it more seriously.

Enacting congestion pricing is still an uphill battle, especially in West Coast cities like Seattle and San Francisco where residents are particularly concerned about privacy issues. That’s according to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who wants to adopt congestion pricing by the end of her first term in 2021. Speaking Thursday at the Bloomberg Sustainable Business Summit in Seattle, Durkan explained why it’s tricky to build support for congestion pricing.

Privacy takes priority: “In the west, and particularly Washington state, there’s a real resistance to congestion pricing for a range of reasons,” Durkan said. She used Washington’s failed “block the box” legislation as an example. The bill would’ve authorized camera ticketing when cars block bike boxes, transit lanes, or wheelchair ramps. What lawmakers thought would be an easy win ultimately failed because “there was a lot of resistance to having camera enforcement.”

“It taught us a lot of lessons about who we need in the coalition,” Durkan said. She added that while there are different ways to implement urban tolling, “most of them use some kind of camera enforcement and automatic reader.”

Traffic drives change: Despite those headwinds, clogged cities around the country are considering congestion pricing more seriously than before. Lawmakers are exploring creative solutions because of a perfect storm of factors: growing urban populations; ride-share cars idling on city streets; and increased e-commerce deliveries driven by Amazon.

Big picture: New York and other cities considering congestion pricing are following a path paved by a handful of cities abroad. Similar policies in London and Stockholm have led to increased traffic speeds and funding for public transit.

“It’s helpful because different models will work in different places,” Durkan said. “We’ll see how they go and what works.”

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