Published Tuesday, December 30, 2008, by the Los Angeles Times
In San Francisco, 'congestion pricing' is something they're sneezing at
The plan could charge motorists $3 to drive into downtown during peak
commute hours and another $3 to leave. The reaction has ranged from
lukewarm to downright hostile.
By Maria L. La Ganga
Reporting from San Francisco -- You've just driven from Oakland to
San Francisco across the Bay Bridge and shelled out $4 for the toll.
You'll be dinged upward of $30 to park for the day in the city.
And if city officials have their way, you could be charged $3 to
drive into downtown San Francisco during peak commute hours and
another $3 to leave.
America's second most congested city could become the first to
institute so-called congestion pricing to try to reduce downtown
traffic, improve the environment and raise money for further transit
fixes. A similar effort failed earlier this year in New York City.
Such a plan might sound like a slam-dunk here, in the first American
metropolis to ban plastic shopping bags -- where officials considered
tapping pet feces for fuel instead of sending it to the landfill, the
mayor banned the use of city funds to buy bottled water (too much
garbage), and the bicycle lobby is a force to be reckoned with.
But reaction to the plan's recent rollout has ranged from lukewarm
to downright hostile.
Even Jose Luis Moscovich, executive director of the San Francisco
County Transportation Authority, acknowledged at a recent City Hall
forum that "we're all nervous about it."
Moscovich is the man who said that "tens of thousands of additional
car trips in San Francisco" share a "common thread" with "terrorism,
climate change, the mortgage crisis, Hurricane Katrina."
That "common thread," he wrote in a recent San Francisco Chronicle
essay, was that "we weren't ready when they hit." To prepare, "we
must consider charging motorists who choose to drive in our city's
most congested areas during peak periods."
The online reaction was fast and furious.
"Why should I have to pay to drive on public streets?" asked one
reader. "Driving has gone the way of smoking," wrote another, adding
that "it is easy and right to pick on drivers."
Congestion pricing, said a third, "would be a regressive tax on
those who don't have good public transit options ..."
Earlier this month, transportation authority staff members held
a series of public hearings to explain what such a plan might
accomplish. They also tried to poll audience members about their
views on congestion pricing.
It wasn't pretty.
The first question at the Dec. 2 gathering was innocuous: "If
congestion pricing were implemented, how might you change your
typical peak period trip?"
The options offered to the crowd were:
A) Drive anyway.
B) Drive at a different time.
C) Take transit or bicycle.
D) Work from home.
A voice from the audience cried out: "Is moving out of the city an
option?" Another, incredulous, asked: "What if you go in and out in
five minutes? That's two trips? That's six bucks?" Then came the
indignant: "Can you put in an option that says I oppose the tax?"
The meeting went downhill from there.
Congestion pricing isn't new to California. Orange County has a
network of toll roads with sliding fees based on traffic levels.
Interstate 15 in San Diego has a similar scheme. And tolls have
been proposed for the 110 and 210 freeways in Los Angeles County.
Cities such as London, Stockholm and Singapore have drawn lines
around key districts and charged drivers for entering them at peak
times. London officials believe their original system cut traffic
by 21% and increased public transit use by 36%.
But no such plan has been approved in the U.S., let alone in car-crazy
A San Francisco analysis -- funded by a million-dollar grant from the
federal government -- asserted that congestion pricing could slash
traffic here by 15%, reduce transportation-related greenhouse gases
by 15% and cut peak-hour delays by 30%.
"Time is money in the kind of world we live in," Jake McGoldrick said
at a recent transportation authority meeting. "It's really important
to make sure that people understand that mobility equals ... the
creation of wealth."
McGoldrick is about to leave the San Francisco Board of Supervisors,
and he's the out-going chairman of the transportation authority.
Congestion pricing is his brainchild, and he is a strong believer in
The plan is being fine-tuned, and the authority won't see a final
version until March. But this is basically how it would work:
Drivers would be charged on weekdays for going into, out of or through
the zone between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and then again between 3 p.m. and
6 p.m. A combination of cameras and transponders (already used to
collect bridge tolls) would track motorists.
The toll zone has yet to be decided, and the authority has not settled
on an amount to charge drivers. Zabe Bent, principal transportation
planner, said fees between 50 cents and $5 were considered.
"We have found that a $3 fee in the peak periods is the most likely
to maximize benefits and minimize impacts," she said. "That's the
fee that encourages a substantial enough number of people to reduce
congestion but doesn't overwhelm the system."
One major concern is that San Francisco's network of buses, trolleys,
cable cars and streetcars is not dependable or robust enough for
commuters to leave their cars behind. Bent said the tolls would net
between $35 million and $65 million annually, money that would be
used to improve transit service.
But that is far from the only complaint.
David Milner, an engineer who attended the first public hearing this
month, lives half a block outside one proposed zone. To get to his
job in Mountain View, an hour away, he would have to cross into the
toll area. Public transit would more than double his commute time.
"What the city is going to do is charge me to get on the freeway to
get out of the city," he said. "The route I take, there's zero
congestion ... If I went every day, that's $1,500 a year. That's
Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of the San Francisco Chamber of
Commerce, told the authority at its Dec. 16 meeting that people
outside of the city will make "decisions based on these costs," and
business will be driven away.
Zone residents -- particularly those with children and inflexible
schedules -- complain that they would be unfairly affected. Others
worry about the burden on low-income commuters. A series of discounts
is being considered.
Taxis, for example, would be exempt under the current proposal. Rental
cars and commercial vehicles would be charged a fleet rate. Carpoolers
probably would not be given a discount, because they already cross the
bridges free and the toll would be spread among several parties.
Moscovich acknowledges the big job ahead of convincing residents and
elected officials that congestion pricing is San Francisco's best
Once the transportation authority decides its shape and particulars,
it will make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors and Mayor
Gavin Newsom on moving forward.
Even if it passes muster in the city, the state Legislature must
grant the city authority to enact it. The state level is where New
York City's efforts bogged down.
But Moscovich said he believes it is possible to woo people out
of their cars because they are "encouraged by their pocketbooks."
"You don't go to eat in an expensive restaurant every night," he
said. "You get the early bird special if you go early. There's no
reason why it can't be that way with transportation also."