Congestion pricing

Congestion pricing involves charging drivers to drive in an area based on the level of congestion in that area. This encourages people to shift to other modes, routes or travel times, which reduces congestion and improves mobility. Fees can be collected through tolls, per-mile charges, or location-based charges.

Key characteristics





WSDOT regions

Other names

  • Area-wide charges or tolls
  • Cordon charges or tolls
  • Express toll lanes
  • High occupancy toll lanes
  • Road pricing
  • Value pricing
  • Variable pricing
  • Variable tolls

Strategy description

Congestion pricing involves charging drivers to drive in an area based on the level of congestion in that area. Prices are higher when roadways are more congested. By making it more expensive to travel alone by personal vehicle, congestion pricing encourages people to shift to other modes, routes or times, which reduces congestion and improves mobility, traffic flow, and travel time reliability.

Congestion pricing can be implemented in different ways:

  • Cordon or area-wide charges: variable or fixed charges to drive within or into a congested area, within a city or within an area
  • Priced lanes: tolled lanes adjacent to lanes that are not tolled, e.g. express toll lanes or high occupancy toll lanes
  • Priced roadways: entirely tolled roadways and bridges, at all times or just during rush hours
  • Variable tolls: predictable rates based upon time of day, often stepped so tolls are higher when congestion is typically worse
  • Dynamic tolls: rates vary based upon real-time traffic conditions, often with a maximum toll rate specified for certain time periods

Congestion pricing encourages people to make different travel choices that improve transportation system efficiency by:

  • Shifting travel to higher occupancy modes like transit, vanpool and carpool
  • Reducing peak hour discretionary travel
  • Increasing the appeal of options that reduce or forego trip making or trip distance, like telework, compressed work weeks, shopping closer to home and home delivery

When to use this strategy

Congestion pricing makes sense when:

  • There are high levels of traffic congestion, peaks in travel demand, increasing transit travel times and decreasing general-purpose and transit travel time reliability. These conditions typically occur in urban and suburban areas.
  • Other options like transit and vanpools are available or could be made available.
  • Communities are frustrated with the increasing impacts of congestion and are willing to consider the potential benefits of pricing.
  • You are incorporating pricing as one part of a larger transportation improvement project, like adding lanes and introducing bus rapid transit.

What you need in order to implement

Congestion pricing requires significant planning and collaboration, long lead times and clear authorization from multiple entities.

  • Multiple entities will need to use their authority and influence to enable congestion pricing. Depending on where it is being considered, this could include the Federal Highway Administration, the governor, the state legislature, the Washington State Transportation Commission, local elected government officials, regional or metropolitan planning organizations, transit agencies, employers and others. All are influenced by public attitudes toward tolls and pricing.
  • Priced lanes (e.g. I-405 Express Toll Lanes and SR 167 High Occupancy Toll Lanes), priced roadways (e.g. Tacoma Narrows Bridge, SR 520 Bridge and SR 99 Tunnel) and variable tolls (SR 167 High Occupancy Toll Lanes) are currently used in Washington. Cordon or area-wide charges are not currently in use.

Learn more about this strategy

Tolling in Washington State, WSDOT: Information about tolling policy, planning and facilities.

Congestion Pricing, Federal Highway Administration: Resources to help states understand, plan and implement congestion pricing.

Congestion Pricing Committee, Transportation Research Board: Research and information.

Congestion Pricing Information Resource Center, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Road Pricing, Victoria Transport Policy Institute: Information about pricing and its effects.

About key characteristics

Location notes:

Urban and suburban areas and corridors with significant traffic congestion and robust transit service. 

Cost notes:

Congestion pricing can generate revenue, which can be used to offset costs of planning, design, construction, and highway and transit operations.

Technology notes:

Toll/revenue collection systems and enforcement systems require significant levels of technology.

Collaboration notes:

Congestion pricing can be highly controversial. High levels of collaboration, community engagement and political commitment are required.