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Thursday, May 30, 2024

San Francisco researches congestion charge

San Francisco is currently studying a congestion pricing plan which could generate $35 to $65 million annually and reduce transportation-related greenhouse gases by 15 percent.

Such a system would impose a toll on downtown drivers. Proceeds from the toll would most likely be reinvested directly into comprehensive transportation improvements for public transit users, drivers, bikers and pedestrians in and around San Francisco.

The toll system would follow the successful plans used in such cities as London, Stockholm, Singapore and Rome.

Funded by a $1 million study grant from the Federal Highway Administration, the study will assess whether implementing such a toll in San Francisco is both technically and economically feasible.

As the second most congested region in the nation, Bay Area businesses sacrificed over $2 billion to congestion in 2005, while transportation remains responsible for almost half of the greenhouse emissions in San Francisco, said Zabe Bent, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s principal planner.

In fact, Bay Area commuters account for 4.6 million daily trips to, from and within San Francisco, about half of which are made by regional travelers, according to 2006 SFCTA figures.

“This is something we need to think about today in the middle of warnings of a recession,” said executive director of the SFCTA José Luis Moscovich. “When we come out of it we will have the [transportation] problem upon us and if we do not have some idea of how to solve it, it will be too late to deal with it then.”

Last week’s presentation to the SFCTA board of directors discussed some specific options for the congestion pricing plan, including fair toll boundaries, prices and times.

For example, low-income families, commercial fleets and residents who live in toll zones may receive discounts or exemptions, while tolls would more than likely be implemented only during peak weekday hours.

Payment schemes would most likely rely on a system of cameras that would photograph car license plates and bill drivers, instead of using unsightly and inefficient tollbooths.

Another payment option is the automated FasTrak system, which many California residents already use. Similar to the London system, drivers would also be able to pay several ways, including phone, e-mail, text message or at retail outlets around town.

While exact costs for commuters remain uncertain, price is estimated at $3 each way from 6 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. Those not driving during peak hours would not be charged.

A final, optimized report will be made in February 2009.

Opposition to the congestion pricing plan claim traffic should be addressed at a regional level, including measures such as the existing 25 percent parking tax placed on commuter parking in San Francisco.

Currently 60 percent of the workforce downtown travels in something other than a single occupancy vehicle, while further taxing of a specific area downtown could lead to an economically and geographically fragmented San Francisco, said Rob Black, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce vice president of public policy in an e-mail.

“The best way to reduce congestion in the Bay Area, as well as San Francisco, would be to charge for parking in these suburban malls and office parks,” he said. “We are concerned that a congestion pricing model will be expensive to implement and manage, and bring with it many consequences and market distortions.”

San Francisco already has one of the highest parking tax rates in the country, second only to Philadelphia, said Ken Cleaveland, director of government and public affairs for the Building Owners and Managers Association of San Francisco.

“The impact of charging drivers to enter San Francisco would have an immediate and negative effect on San Francisco businesses,” he said.

If the toll were implemented, a vast majority of shoppers would opt to shop elsewhere due to the nuisance of public transportation, Cleaveland said.

“We need to reduce our costs of coming into San Francisco, not increase them,” he said. “With better citywide traffic management and education programs, coupled with much higher fines for breaking traffic rules, we would radically reduce or eliminate our traffic congestion problem and its concomitant air pollution without the need for such a civic disincentive.”

Yet with 25-year projections set at 150,000 for new residents and 230,000 for new jobs in San Francisco, increased efficiency and availability of public transit made possible by toll revenues could ease out-of-pocket fuel expenses for daily commuters as gasoline prices continue to increase.

Added benefits are a safer, quieter and more easily reachable downtown for residents, pedestrians and bikers.

The congestion pricing plan is founded upon reports coming from cities where similar programs have already been implemented, where an enhancement of the business environment occurs parallel to the decongestion of a city, said SFCTA Authority Board chair Jake McGoldrick.

“We have models around the world where we see that this is actually saving the congested urban core areas of many cities around the world, as opposed to their dying off,” he said. “That’s what this program is all about. It’s actually enhancing all the aspects of life in urban areas, including the business and commercial interests,”

Although businesses have fears about the plan, McGoldrick said he thinks the program would benefit the city as a whole.

More information is available at sfmobility.org.


AARON BRUNER can be reached at city@theaggie.org.


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