San Francisco Congestion Pricing Plan to Be Shopped at Public Meetings

Northeast_cordon.jpgA London-style cordon encompassing the northeast section of the city. Cordon boundaries would be at 18th Street to the south and Guerrero and Laguna Streets to the west. Image: SFCTA.

While the full results of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority's (SFCTA) congestion pricing plan, the SF Mobility, Access, and Pricing Study (SFMAPS), have not yet been released, the agency will hold a series of public meetings starting next week to discuss the general principles of congestion pricing and how it could work in San Francisco. At the public meetings, the SFCTA will detail several possible scenarios to charge drivers for driving into San Francisco's downtown during peak periods, a prospect that should spark significant public and media debate.

In the best-case scenario, the SFCTA predicts raising $80 million for transit and non-driving mobility options like bicycling and pedestrian improvements, with traffic reductions of up to 12 percent, emissions reductions up to 16 percent and transit speed improvements of up to 20 percent.

While these numbers sound great, the agency still has to convince a lot of people about the benefits of congestion pricing, including Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was an early advocate for the concept, but who is not so sure now is a good time to try it.

"I've worked very hard to promote this construct, but I want to do it in a thoughtful and judicious way and I want to do it in a way that's not going to hurt the economic growth of this city at a time when we're trying to recruit companies and trying to recruit people," Newsom told Streetsblog. "We have a lot more work to do on that. We need a lot more outreach, a lot more consensus."

"I'm not ideologically opposed by any stretch," added Newsom, but "I'm not sure this is the right time to be having this debate."

Whether or not this is the right time, the SFCTA will present its findings to the public this week and then present the full study to the Board of Supervisors, acting as it's board of directors, this fall.

Tilly Chang, Deputy Director for Planning at the SFCTA acknowledged the significant political hurdles for congestion pricing and said right now they are primarily concerned with educating the public around the region.

"We're fighting a huge amount of skepticism," she said. But, she added, there is "no decision to take right now about doing it or not. We just need to educate people and create awareness. The whole region needs to understand and see the benefit of it."

Several Options for Pricing Boundary and Fees

According to the models run by the SFCTA, without any action, traffic in San Francisco during rush hours will get significantly worse as the region grows, leading to an increase in traffic related costs. The SFCTA predicts a 20 percent increase in traffic delay in San Francisco by 2030, rising to 30 percent by 2040, or the equivalent of adding 40,000 more vehicles per day in the already busy downtown.

In response to this expected traffic growth, the SFCTA has proposed several pricing options, including a London-style cordon that would use transponder (such as FasTrak) and camera technology to charge drivers crossing certain streets during the peak periods. SFCTA staff would prefer a northeast cordon (pictured above), where the charge boundary would be at 18th Street on the southern border and Guerrero and Laguna Streets on the western edge.

Drivers crossing these new cordon borders could be charged in several ways, depending on what option is finally chosen by the Board of Supervisors, acting as the SFCTA's board of directors.

With the northeast cordon, the SFCTA has proposed two fee options. The first would charge drivers $3 between 6-9 a.m. and another $3 from 3-7 p.m. on weekdays only. All other times would be free and there would be a cap of $6 per day. This option would raise the most money, a net of $80 million annually, but it has been unpopular with downtown business focus groups because of the perception that it will impact theater goers and evening trips made by car, according to the SFCTA.

revenue_projections_small.jpgProjected revenue from the various options.

Another fee proposal would target the driving commuter by charging $6 for trips leaving the northeast cordon from 3-7 p.m. in the outbound direction only. This would raise only $70 million annually, but would not have any impact on people who choose to drive into the cordon area in the evening. This option would also have fewer traffic and emissions reductions benefits than the morning and evening charges.

The last significant option would be a Southern Gateway fee area paired with citywide parking pricing, including commercial off-street facilities in conjunction with SFPark. While details on this option are not in the SFCTA's report, Gabriel Metcalf, Executive Director of the transportation think tank SPUR and a supporter of this option, said the benefits were significant.

Metcalf said congestion could be reduced by charging the $3 at the cordon boundary or at the parking space and it would have the same congestion reduction benefit because drivers would incorporate the new price of their driving trip into their calculations and decide whether or not to drive in the same way they would with the cordon.

The parking fee, however, "would be infinitely flexible," said Metcalf, and could be applied in any congested area around the city, not just the cordon zone.

"Transportation is absolutely something that can be improved through better pricing, but I think the jury is still out on whether a London-style cordon is the right answer or whether it might not be simpler to just charge people at the parking space," said Metcalf.

"We could have demand-based parking pricing all over the city, which would mean that where there is plenty of parking, it would be free and where there is not enough parking to meet demand, it would rise."

Common Misconceptions About Driving in San Francisco

No matter which plan might be selected, the SFCTA's Chang was preparing to dispel a host of common misconceptions about driving in San Francisco, perhaps predicting the issues that would come up at the public meetings this week.

One of the bigger conceits held by many San Franciscans, according to Chang, is that all the traffic in the city is from drivers who don't live in the city. In fact, 70 percent of driving during rush hour to San Francisco's downtown is done by San Franciscans.

"It's one of the big dirty secrets," said Chang, who noted that 20 percent of the driving downtown comes from downtown drivers. "It's easy to think it's all the regional people, South Bay people. It's not, it's San Franciscans."

Another huge misconception is the fallacy that congestion pricing would be a regressive tax on poor people who need to drive into the cordon area. According to SFCTA data, only 10 percent of drivers to, from, and within the downtown area during the morning rush are from households making less than $50,000 annually. What's more, only 3 percent of total trips to, from, and within dowtown are made by people in this demographic. The vast majority of low-income San Franciscans ride transit, walk, or ride bicycles.

Whether or not this data will help shape the perception of congestion pricing is another matter. Chang said in addition to the public meetings, the SFCTA has applied for federal and state grants to conduct a 6-month congestion pricing pilot, should city stakeholders agree to try it.

No matter what happens in the coming months, the SFCTA will start its environmental impact report for congestion pricing would start in 2011 and likely be completed in 2013. Implementation could happen by 2014.

The first in-person meeting will be held next week, July 27, 2010, from 5:30pm to 7:00pm at the San Francisco Ferry Building in the Port Commission Room, 2nd Floor. The second in-person meeting will be held Wednesday, July 28, 2010, from 5:30pm to 7:00pm at the SFCTA Hearing Room, 100 Van Ness Avenue, 26th Floor.

Two webinars will be held on Wednesday, August 4, 2010, from 12:00pm – 1:00pm and Thursday, August 5, 2010, from 12:30pm – 1:30pm. You can sign up for the webinars at www.sfmobility.org.

UPDATED: 2:30 pm

Southern_border_and_Parking_pricing.jpgPricing at all the bridge crossings and the southern entries to the city with combined off-street parking pricing, the option preferred by SPUR and some business interests.
Emissions_impacts_small.jpgEmissions benefits from the various options.

traffic_impacts_small.jpgTraffic benefits of the various options.