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In SF, downtown congestion charge plan unpopular

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  • 12/30 Los Angeles Times
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 31, 2008
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      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
      California.

      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
      its benefits.

      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
      just absurd."

      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
      option.

      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."

      maria.laganga@...
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