Congestion pricing plan headed to board this fall

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San Francisco is now one step closer to becoming the first American city to implement a congestion pricing plan as the San Francisco County Transportation Authority staff prepares to present their final study findings to the Board of Supervisors this fall.

Dubbed the San Francisco Mobility and Access Pricing Study, the investigation considered the costs and benefits of charging drivers a fee to enter or leave the most traffic-burdened areas of the city. The million-dollar study was funded through the Federal Highway Administration’s Value Pricing Pilot program.

“We’ve been looking at how we improve transportation options and conditions today and also how our city can grow in a sustainable and competitive way in the future,” SFCTA deputy director for planning Tilly Chang said Tuesday in the first in a series of public meetings.

According to the Transportation Authority, congestion pricing generally tends to “pick off people on the margin,” prompting drivers who don't really need a car to ride the bus, walk or bike instead. If the system runs according to plan, commuters would see a 21 percent reduction in time spent on roadways and cause a 5 percent reduction in local greenhouse gas emissions.

“We also want to solve very real and current congestion problems, particularly for our surface transportation,” Chang said. “Our buses are operating on our city streets at rather low speeds.”

What’s more, the system is projected to bolster city revenue by more than $60 million annually. Zabe Bent, SFCTA principal transportation planner, said that extra revenue would be a necessity considering the enormous boom predicted for the city.

“Over the next 20 years, the region expects to add 150,000 residents and 230,000 more jobs,” Bent said. “This is essentially the population of Santa Rosa and all the jobs in Oakland today. So that’s pretty significant growth by 2030.”

Congestion pricing, Bent said, is an option that will both remedy the population increase and lighten the load of an underfunded public transportation system.

“We need to have solutions that are both managing demand and also generating revenue so that we can fund much needed improvement projects,” Bent said. “Some of that, we want to spend on capital improvements that could be provided up front or over the course of the program as well as Muni operating improvements on an annual basis.”

The toll zone has yet to be determined and the exact amount to charge drivers remains subject to change. Bent said that the model evaluated fees between 50 cents and $5. "A $3 fee in peak periods seems like the most viable option,” she said. “We’ve found that cost to be the most balanced. It encourages a substantial number of people to reduce congestion but yet doesn't overwhelm the system."

The most likely candidate for paid use is the area east of Laguna and Guerrero streets and north of 18th Street, a section the group is calling the Northeast cordon. A similar program was implemented in London more than five years ago, with drivers subject to fees upon entering central parts of the city. Stockholm, Singapore, and Rome also have congestion charges in place. Most recently, the city of New York supported charging drivers $8 upon entering the highly congested streets of Manhattan. However, the fledgling plan died after reaching the State Assembly last year.

Although the program was modeled after pricing plans in other countries, transportation officials said that the plan intends to account for the uniqueness of San Francisco, perhaps even using current electronic collection technology such as FasTrak.

“We want to preserve the urban design of the city,” Bent said. “We’ve heard ideas of mounting camera-based detectors on our existing mast arms or, potentially, new signs on the streets. Essentially, it would look very much like a red light running camera.”

The Transportation Authority held two informational meetings this week and has plans for two lunchtime webinars in August. Transportation officials said that the meetings were arranged with public feedback in mind, with each session containing an electronic polling segment and ample time for dissenters to ask questions.

To ease the minds of skeptics, Chang was careful to note that the congestion pricing plan would not be approved or finalized immediately.

“By no means would we be looking at doing anything tomorrow,” Chang said. “We understand that now is not any time to be adding to existing burdens and costs, but what we are trying to do is anticipate the city’s growth and development needs.”

Despite the lengthy timeline, the plan has come under attack by business owners and regional commuters. Hut Landon, executive director of San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Alliance, worried that a $3 fee might deter customers from visiting shops within the cordon, thereby slashing profit.

“Any policy that will have a negative affect on businesses is misguided,” he said. “Local businesses are revenue and job generators and doing something that gives people less incentive to shop in certain areas is, I would argue, bad for San Francisco.”