S.F. studying congestion pricing to ease traffic, promote transitSan Francisco Chronicle
September 19, 2007
Drivers would pay to travel on San Francisco’s most traffic-choked corridors - roadways such as the Embarcadero, Van Ness Avenue, Broadway and Harrison Street - under a plan getting serious consideration from city transportation officials in their continuing quest to get more people out of their cars.
The examination of congestion pricing is first being studied for Doyle Drive, a major approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. Last month federal officials awarded the Bay Area $158 million to tackle congestion, and San Francisco’s Doyle Drive project is the centerpiece of the effort. In return, local officials had to agree to charge a toll on the road. That fee has yet to be determined, but officials are looking at $1 to $2 on top of the existing $5 bridge toll.
There’s also talk of charging people an exit fee when they drive from Treasure Island - San Francisco’s newest neighborhood, in the middle of the bay - onto the city’s mainland during rush hour.
Details of the congestion pricing initiatives under consideration in San Francisco have yet to be worked out.
But the goal is twofold: Reduce congestion by discouraging drivers from getting into their polluting cars and raise money for transit. City officials say Muni, for example, needs an extra $100 million a year to make significant service improvements. The money could also help promote biking and make streets safer for pedestrians.
In addition to the grant for Doyle Drive, the federal government gave the city $1 million to study driving fees in San Francisco, particularly the downtown core and major arteries to and from the Bay Bridge.
Congestion pricing already has taken root in such European metropolises as London, Rome and Stockholm but has yet to be enacted in the United States. San Francisco has joined New York City and Washington, D.C., in contemplating such a program.
In London, for example, cameras snap photos of license plates, and drivers must pay the charge either before or on the day of travel. They can pay by telephone, text message, online, mail or in person at designated stores.
In San Francisco, the program could make use of the FasTrak electronic toll-collecting system, but such logistics have yet to be decided. The amount of the fee and how it would fluctuate according to the time or day and location also are unclear.
On a typical day, there are about 1 million trips in and out of San Francisco’s downtown, South of Market and Civic Center neighborhoods, according to city statistics. Private automobiles make up about half that load.
On more than 60 percent of downtown streets, the average speed is less than 10 mph, according to local transportation planners, and the problem is expected to get worse with projected job growth and residential development over the next 25 years.
Officials are looking at how much to charge, whether the fees should be applied only during certain hours, what specific streets or neighborhoods would be targeted, which drivers should be exempted from paying, how traffic patterns might change, the availability of viable transportation alternatives and the potential economic effects.
The San Francisco County Transportation Authority, the lead agency on the project, has set up advisory groups - representing such interests as business associations, regional transit agencies and environmental organizations - to weigh in on the issue. Public workshops will begin next month.
The transportation authority’s recommendations on fees are expected next summer.
"We think it’s something that at least deserves consideration," said Tilly Chang, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s deputy director for planning. "We wouldn’t be looking at it if we didn’t think it showed promise."
San Francisco would have to gain state approval to move forward. But that’s not the only hurdle. City business leaders are wary and could use their political and financial clout to try to apply the brake.
"We are very concerned about people who plan to come into the city to shop, to eat, to be entertained," said Linda Mjellem, who runs the Union Square Association and serves on the transportation authority’s business advisory panel. "Congestion pricing does change behavior, and I think it will drive business elsewhere."
She said another idea being looked at by city officials and backed by environmentalists - to raise parking fees at meters and public lots during peak times in certain neighborhoods - might only add to the problem.
Mjellem said she’s spoken to Chamber of Commerce representatives in London who lamented the loss of business and jobs after congestion pricing went into effect there four years ago. But advocates say downtown London has benefited with fewer traffic jams, less pollution, better transit service, fewer pedestrian injuries and more foot traffic in commercial corridors.
San Francisco Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, who chairs the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, said congestion pricing is a way to manage traffic and help fund transit. The idea fits well into San Francisco’s "transit first" policy that tries to give high priority to the use of public transportation.
"It’s a collective improvement we’re looking for, but through individual choices," McGoldrick said.
London charges about $16 a day to drive downtown; Stockholm charges a maximum of about $8.60 a day. The London system cost about $307 million to set up and last year generated $437 million in total revenues. Once administrative and operating costs were factored in, the net revenue last year was $250 million. Stockholm, a considerably smaller system, made $50 million in net revenue.
San Francisco officials expect to have a better idea in coming months of how much money a street-toll program could generate after more analysis is completed. A lot depends on the charge - officials are using a range of tolls between 50 cents and $4 in their study - and the scope of where and when the charges would be applied.
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Comments on the congestion pricing proposals can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The San Francisco County Transportation Authority will hold a public forum on the topic from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Milton Marks Conference Center in the state building, 455 Golden Gate Ave.