Entering the San Francisco Pay Area
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.”