San Francisco Considers Taking the Plunge on Congestion Pricing

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Will San Francisco succeed where New York City and others have failed? The San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Cabanatuan reports that the City by the Sea is weighing a congestion pricing proposal that would require motorists to pay a $3 fee to enter, leave or pass through certain parts of SF during peak hours. Though the city's Board of Supervisors won't be making a recommendation until at least February next year, several voiced support for it during a meeting held last Tuesday.

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San Francisco would be first in the nation to approve "cordon area" congestion pricing
If approved, the plan would become the nation's first congestion pricing scheme. Known as a "cordon toll" or "cordon area" congestion pricing because drivers pay a tax or fee to enter/leave a restricted area, this scheme has already proved successful in London, Stockholm, Rome and Singapore (which first implemented its landmark "Singapore Area Licensing Scheme" way back in 1975), where it has significantly reduced traffic and air pollution and helped raise millions for new infrastructure projects.

The $3 toll was chosen to effect the most change in altering transportation habits, explains Zabe Bent, the plan's lead advocate and a member of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. The actual toll, which could yet change, will be subject to the mayor's and board's discretion. Here's a brief summary of how it would work:

Final decision and implementation still a long ways off

The $3 toll would be collected on weekdays between 6 and 9 a.m. and 4 and 7 p.m. - meaning the average car commuter would pay $6 a day in congestion tolls. The fees would be collected using FasTrak transponders and a network of cameras. Motorists would be able to pay via phone, the Internet or retail outlets.

Bent and his colleagues believe the toll could eventually raise $35 - $65 million a year. The funds would be used to improve existing transit lines, particularly Muni and BART, and to build new projects -- including new bicycle lanes, a bike-sharing program and more regional transit parking. Taxi drivers, low-income drivers and residents of the toll zone would be offered substantial discounts (up to half off), while drivers who used the bridges would get $1 off their fee. In addition, commercial, rental and car-sharing vehicles would pay a reduced fleet rate.

Lest you start getting too excited/angered, this plan still has a long way to go before it even gets close to being approved. For one thing, the planners first need to settle on the locations where they will collect the tolls; some of the areas under consideration include the Bay and Golden Gate bridges, Highway 101 and Interstate 280. (A downtown area was considered for a while but nixed after planners decided it would be too easy for drivers to just avoid it.)

The planners will also consider the following scenarios:

- The "double-ring," which would charge a toll at gateways and another toll at the downtown zone. Tolls at one of the areas would be higher than the other - perhaps $1.50 at the gateways and $3 downtown, or vice versa.

- The northeast cordon - a larger toll zone that would include downtown and Civic Center but also Fisherman's Wharf, North Beach and a number of other neighborhoods. The boundaries would include the waterfront on the north and east, Divisadero and Castro streets on the west and 18th Street on the south.

After a series of public meetings, which will be held in December, the planners will meet to narrow down their options in January and make their final recommendations to the board in February. Even if approved, the scheme will take another 2 - 3 years to get started in earnest to allow for the necessary environmental assessment reports.

If anybody has a shot at getting this plan through, it's San Francisco. New York's proposed scheme, which would've operated much like SF's (though it would have imposed a much higher fee, $8), was rejected in April due to tepid support from the legislature's Democratic members.

Los Angeles, which has a much stronger car culture (some might say "addiction"), hasn't even come close to this debate; however, its Metropolitan Transportation Authority did recently float a tweaked scheme that would allow the majority of drivers to use converted HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes -- thus blunting most of the criticism about equity issues. It's still a weak substitute for a true cordon area congestion pricing scheme but one that, given the realities of L.A. driving, makes more sense.

More about congestion pricing
Metro Bringing Tweaked Congestion Pricing Plan to Los Angeles
San Francisco Considers Banning Cars on Major Boulevard
Wasting Away in Traffic
Bloomberg Congestion Fee a No-Go

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