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San Francisco could raise $35 million to $65 million for public transit improvements annually by charging drivers $3 to cross specific downtown zones during peak travel hours, according to a San Francisco County Transportation Authority congestion pricing study.
The aim of those fees, SFCTA staffers say, is to reduce congestion, making trips faster and more reliable, neighborhoods cleaner, and vehicle emissions lower, all while raising money to improve local and regional public transit and make the city more livable and walkable improvements they hope will get even more folks out of their cars.
London, Rome, and Stockholm already have congestion pricing schemes, but plans to charge congestion fees in New York got shelved this July, reportedly in large part because of New Jersey officials' fears that low-income suburban commuters would end up carrying a disproportionate burden of these fees.
As a result of New York's unanticipated pressing of the pause button, San Francisco now stands poised to become the first city in the United States to introduce congestion pricing. But the plan requires approval from both local officials as well and the state legislature.
As SFCTA executive director Jose Luis Moscovich told the Guardian last week, "The state has control over passage of goods and people. Therefore, if we want to restrict that in any way, e.g. charging a congestion fee, [we] have to get the state's permission."
If a congestion pricing plan is to go forward, it will need the support of Mayor Gavin Newsom. Wade Crowfoot, the mayor's climate change advisor, told us, "It's obvious that the mayor embraces the concept, as he laid out in his 2008 inaugural address."
But Newsom isn't signing the dotted line just yet. "The mayor wants to make sure that there are no negative impacts that would make people not want to come to San Francisco, or would harm low-income people who live in areas that are not served by public transit and have no other choice but to drive," Crowfoot said.
"We are encouraging the [Transportation Authority] to do vigorous public outreach so that no one feels blindsided," Crowfoot added.
But as SFCTA executive director Jose Luis Moscovich explained Nov. 25 to the supervisors, who also constitute the transportation authority board, even if San Francisco gets the legislative green light, it could take two to three years to implement a congestion pricing plan.
"We're not making a proposal," Moscovich said. "We're just showing the initial results of our analysis."
That said, it's clear Moscovich believes congestion pricing is feasible and would contribute to local, regional, and statewide transit goals.
With San Francisco planning to accommodate 150,000 new residents and 230,000 new jobs over the next 25 years, Moscovich's principal transportation planner, Zabe Bent, outlined four scenarios last week that would mitigate impacts in already congested areas.
These scenarios involve a small downtown cordon, a gateway fee with increased parking pricing downtown, a double ring that combines gateway crossings with additional fees downtown, and a cordon that imposes fees on crossings into the city's northeast corner. (See www.sfmobility.org  for details, including maps of the four possible zone scenarios.)
It seems likely the SFCTA will pursue the double ring or northeast cordon option.
As Bent told the board, "If the zone is too small, people will drive around it. And drivers within the zone could end up driving more, thereby eroding anticipated congestion benefits."
But all four scenarios aim to alleviate an additional 382,000 daily trips and 30 percent extra time lost to traffic congestion that would otherwise occur by 2030, according to SFCTA studies.
"We won't reach environmental goals through clean technology alone," Bent explained. "Even if everyone converted to a Prius, the roads would still be congested."
Observing that it already costs at least $4 to get into the city by car on top of $2 per gallon for gas and high parking fees Bent argued that congestion, which cost the city $2 billion in 2005, reduces San Francisco's competitiveness and quality of life.
Stockholm raised $50 million a year and reduced congestion by 22 percent with congestion fees, while London raised $200 million a year and reduced congestion by 30 percent.
In San Francisco, the SFCTA used computer models to determine that by charging $3 per trip at peak hours, the region would get maximum benefits and minimum impacts.
Discounts would be available for commercial fleets, rentals, car shares, and zone residents, Bent said, with toll payers getting a $1 "fee-bate" and taxis completely exempt.
As Moscovich noted, "Taxis are viewed as an extension of the public transit system."
With concerted public outreach scheduled for the next two months, and business groups already grumbling about even talking about any increases to the cost of shopping and commuting with the economy in meltdown, Moscovich warned the supervisors not to wait until after the next economic boom hits, before planning to deal with congestion.
"Now is the right time to study it, but not implement it yet," Moscovich said.
Kathryn Phillips of the Sacramento-based Environmental Defense Fund told the Board that in Stockholm, public support grew to 67 percent once a congestion fee was in place.
"People saw that it reduced congestion, provided more public transit services, and made the city more livable and walkable," Phillips said.
BART director and Livable City executive director Tom Radulovich believes that free downtown transit would make the fees more palatable. "Fares could be collected when you get off the train if you travel outside of the zone," Radulovich said.
Noting that BART is approaching its limits, Muni Metro needs investments, and parking fees are an effective tool for managing congestion, Radulovich added. "Congestion pricing's main criteria should not be to make traffic move faster. I don't want to create more dangerous streets, but generally speaking, I think that plan is on the right track."
As for fears that San Francisco's plans could tank at the state level because of concerns about working-class drivers being unfairly burdened, Radulovich noted that SFCTA studies at Doyle Drive determined that only 6 percent of peak hour drivers are low-income.
"The vast majority are earning more than $50,000 a year," Radulovich said. "And since the number of low-income drivers is very small, they could be given discounts. The real environmental justice issue here is what current congestion levels are doing to people living downtown, who are mostly low-income. They put up with inhumane levels of traffic and congestion, which affects the health and livability of their neighborhoods."
Dave Synder, transportation policy director for SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association), said he believes the regressive tax argument is a misleading attack.
"The truth is, that without the revenues this program will bring, the MTA will have to cut service for poor people, not increase service to meet increased demand for people who can no longer afford to drive," Synder told us.
But several local business groups are claiming that San Francisco doesn't have a congestion problem compared to European cities.
Ken Cleveland of San Francisco's Building Owners and Managers Association, said he believes that reports of congestion in San Francisco "are more hype than reality.
"We have no problem compared to London, Rome, and Stockholm," Cleveland said. "Congestion fees may work when you have a huge city with millions of people crammed in, like in London, Manhattan, Rome, but not in San Francisco."
Cleveland urged a hard look at what this increase means for people who drive now. " Fees of $160 a month would be "a real hit" on the middle and working classes, he said.
Jim Lazarus of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce said he opposed a local cordon, but supports a regional congestion pricing program. "Look out the window at 10.45 a.m., and you'll see that there is no congestion on Montgomery and Pine," Lazarus told us, noting that unlike London, which covers 600 square miles, San Francisco only has a 49-square-mile footprint.
"If you decide not to go into downtown London, the odds are your taxes, jobs, and revenues will still go into London's coffers," he said. "That's not the case in San Francisco. So from a small business point of view, it doesn't make sense."
Bent says the SFCTA's study provides numbers that are irrefutable, in terms of showing how travel times are impacted by congestion, during peak hours. "We're talking about modest improvements in speed, but significant improvements in travel time," Bent said.
The proposed fees won't affect shoppers, museum-goers, or those going out at night, but would benefit all users of the public transit system, Moscovich said.
"We're not designing for London, we're designing for San Francisco," Moscovich told the Guardian. "And this is not an anti-automobile program. This is an effort to achieve a balanced transportation system."
With the congestion fee revenue reinvested in transportation infrastructure, Moscovich adds, public transit will be less crowded, and provide more frequent, faster service.
"It all makes perfect internal sense: folks with the least resources are likely to benefit the most," said Moscovich, who predicts that San Francisco will agree on some form of congestion pricing.
"The mayor wants to be seen as a leader in initiating climate change commitment, and transportation is one of the first ways to achieve this," he said. "Especially since 50 percent of San Francisco's greenhouse emissions occur during peak hour travel."
"We're trying to change behavior, not just engineering. We don't want people in cars. ... For every pollution-free Prius, you have diesel buses and older cars sitting in traffic idling, essentially eroding any benefits. The best way to optimize results is to get some cars out of the peak hour."
Sup. Jake McGoldrick, who is president of the SFCTA board and has supported the congestion fee-pricing system since it was implemented in London, said that "business will have to step up [and] make a willing suspension of disbelief to see that enhanced mobility will enhance business opportunities.
"There will be no need to get mauled at the mall," McGoldrick predicts. "San Francisco has wonderful things to offer, not just a sterile, homogenous, single-purpose environment. You can't match museums and cultural amenities out at the malls. San Francisco is a cultural center, not just a strip mall."
McGoldrick, who is termed out in January, said that the new Board "will lean very positively toward doing this." He added that state representatives, including Sens. Leland Yee and Mark Leno and Assembly Members Fiona Ma and Tom Ammiano "will see the benefits.
"They should be willing to carry the banner because of the long term benefits for their grandchildren," McGoldrick said.
(The Board will consider the congestion pricing scenarios and impacts Dec. 16. See www.sfmobility.org  for details of public workshops and meetings.)