Congestion Pricing Fracas Shows Lamentable Ignorance of Facts

You’d think the Tea Party had descended on San Mateo County, what with the piqued rhetoric in the media over San Francisco’s congestion pricing study. I don’t like to invoke Sarah Palin’s jargon, but I keep coming back to her horrible phrase “lamestream media” when I see yet another story that paints San Francisco transportation planners as greedy car-hating vampires and gets the facts on the pricing study so terribly wrong.

Take John Horgan, a columnist for the San Mateo County Times, who calls San Francisco the Boondoggle by the Bay and the Duchy of Dysfunction, while lamenting that the poor “plebians” on the other side of the city’s “moat-like pay gate” should boycott San Francisco businesses and frequent those in San Mateo if the pick-pocket plan ever passes..

Running with a similar trope, Mike Sugarman of CBS 5 calls the proposal a “border war,” while erroneously painting a scenario where he drives across the charging zone line, forgets something back in Daly City and ends up paying $12 for crossing the line four times (in each of the four pricing zones being studied, a daily charge to a driver would be capped at $6). Sugarman then sticks his microphone in the face of a bunch of drivers and asks them if they would pay for something they currently get for free. Hmm, can you kids guess what the answer is going to be?

You have to wade through 2:20 of bad reporting to get to the first two factual items in Sugarman’s piece, when he says San Francisco is only studying congestion pricing and it wouldn’t go into effect before 2015 at the earliest.

Ken Garcia at the San Francisco Examiner takes the crusade on factual reporting even further, misrepresenting almost everything about the congestion pricing study, conflating the various options for congestion zones into one big tax-happy, driver hating city of lunatics. And on a stylistic quibble, I don’t think Garcia could have stuffed any more puns into his day-after Thanksgiving report (see Jon Stewart’s recent bit on media abuse of puns), from trotting turkeys to gravy to squash and communal platters. If the Examiner had editors, they could have trimmed several hundred words worth of fat from that holiday bird and left us merely with specious claims about money grubbing supervisors “taxing” the “privilege” and “pleasure” of driving.

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.

This recent round of press attention started when the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) held a media breakfast on November 10th to update transportation reporters on the agency’s priorities and projects for the coming year.

As we have written before, 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, where the charge boundary would be at 18th Street on the southern border and Guerrero and Laguna Streets on the western edge.

In the cordon scenario with a morning and evening charge of $3 (with a maximum of $6 daily) the SFCTA predicts raising $80 million net 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.

The day after the November 10th press briefing, the three other reporters present wrote stories on the SFCTA’s plan to present its board of directors, who are the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, with an update on the progress they have made and to ask permission to continue studying further, including the possibility of a pilot.

Cue the madness.

Though none of the stories misrepresented the facts, the Chronicle story led with a first sentence that said congestion pricing could cost drivers $1,560 a year (writer Rachel Gordon presumably multiplied 260 work days per year times $6 to get that figure). Unfortunately, the article posits the four pricing scenarios being studied, but doesn’t make clear that they would not be simultaneously enacted (which Garcia concludes in his op-ed).

Fueled by members of the San Mateo political class taking opportunistic pot-shots at the study, especially Daly City Councilman David Canepa, the salient number has become that $1,560 driving tax.

“It’s making people crazy thinking this is just a money grab,” said Tilly Chang, SFCTA deputy director for planning. Chang said the SFCTA has met many times with San Mateo county officials and staff, explaining the various scenarios under study and emphasizing the benefits. “We really want to have a more thoughtful and informed conversation so that we’re listening to each other and hear each other. They’re missing the point that this is a shared regional problem.”

In my conversations over the past year with the SFCTA planners doing the study, they made it clear that the most effective pricing zone option for reducing downtown traffic, speeding up Muni and raising significant money for improving city streets is the northeast cordon. They noted that the southern boundary option would not have the desired traffic reduction in downtown because 70 percent of the peak period drivers to the northeast cordon are coming from a San Francisco address to begin with. True, San Mateo drivers don’t pay tolls to drive into downtown San Francisco like Marin and East Bay drivers do, but they represent only a small fraction of traffic in the target pricing neighborhoods.

Perhaps the most disappointing piece of disinformation came from Adrienne Tissier’s op-ed in the Examiner yesterday. Tissier is a San Mateo County Supervisor and is about to become the chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the region’s transportation and planning authority. In her op-ed, Tissier plays up the same tax-hungry bogeymen as the columnists, but she also makes the irrational assertion that congestion pricing will increase traffic by encouraging peak-hour commuters to travel at different times.

Um, Ms. Tissier, this is exactly the point of congestion pricing: it reduces peak period traffic and encourages some people to choose a reasonable transit alternative, which according to the SFCTA, includes 80 percent of those currently driving downtown. If this is Tissier’s attitude for San Francisco, I fear for the region, where she will be presiding over the recently announced target of reducing greeenhouse gas emissions 15 percent by 2035. No serious planner believes this can be accomplished without adequate pricing of driving.

“We understand that we’re a culture addicted to our cars,” said the SFCTA’s Chang when asked to explain why this issue has blown up in the press. “We know from any 12-step program, there’s anger, denial and blame and then you get through to acceptance and understanding the issues and the problem and maybe then the acceptance needed to make a change.”

“Doing nothing is just going to relegate us to a region in decline,” she added.