Congestion Pricing: Vital for Funding a Sustainable Transpo Future in SF

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Third Street. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Take a shot at budgeting San Francisco’s future transportation revenue with the new online “Budget Czar” simulator from the SF County Transportation Authority, and it will quickly become clear: If residents want better transit and safer streets for walking and biking over the next 25 years, the city needs to collect new sources of transportation revenue in a way that effectively reduces motor vehicle congestion.

The SFCTA anticipates having $64 billion to spend over the next 25 years, with 80 percent ($52 billion) going to maintain the existing state of street and transit infrastructure — “not nearly enough to meet projected needs,” the agency said in a statement. With $9 billion already committed to projects in the works, that leaves just $3.14 billion left to devote to projects like pedestrian safety upgrades, a network of protected bikeways, and increased transit service — improvements that the SFCTA believes are in high demand from the public. By seeing how residents would budget that $3.14 billion in the “Czar” simulator, the SFCTA says it hopes to get a better picture of how to prioritize transportation projects in the 25-year San Francisco Transportation Plan, expected to be adopted next spring.

“We need to critically think about, ‘What are some of the best sources of revenue?’” said Egon Terplan, regional planning director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). “One of the really important functions of the Transportation Plan is to put that on the table, and to say, ‘What projects do you want as a city and county? And if you want more investment in transportation projects than we likely have money for, are you willing to pay for it?’”

As funding sources like gas taxes and federal grants shrink, population growth in the Bay Area means the SFCTA expects as many as 412,000 more daily car trips clogging the city’s streets and highways by 2035. But that scenario can be averted if San Francisco institutes a congestion pricing system that provides incentives for drivers to avoid adding to traffic jams while funding improvements to make transit, bicycling and walking more attractive.

The idea, which has proven successful and popular in Stockholm and London following initial skepticism, has been discussed in San Francisco for years. The SFCTA’s 2010 Mobility Pricing and Access Study estimated that in 2005, car congestion alone cost San Francisco $2 billion, a price that’s expected to increase to $3.2 billion by 2030. The study looked at different scenarios for implementing congestion pricing in San Francisco, and the agency says it is developing a plan.

SPUR, which has advocated for regional highway pricing, did a cost-benefit analyses of using Stockholm-style cordon congestion pricing in downtown SF to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, though it hasn’t taken a position on the SFCTA’s plans. One downside of the measure is that with the infrastructure and staffing cost, it could take a decade or more before it yields net revenue.

Before congestion pricing comes to the city, it could be tested on Treasure Island, where redevelopment is set to add up to 8,000 new housing units in the coming years. SFCTA Executive Director José Luis Moscovitch recently told the SF Board of Supervisors, which serves as the agency’s board of directors, that “there’s a very compelling need” to charge drivers entering and leaving Treasure Island during rush hour to avoid exacerbating traffic jams on the Bay Bridge. A congestion toll, which would be just one part of Treasure Island’s transportation plan, is “part of the thinking about discouraging driving as much as possible and also providing a robust mix of other options to get in and out of the island,” like bus and ferry service, he said.

When the idea of congestion pricing was introduced with the SFCTA’s 2010 study, it drew fierce opposition from politicians in San Mateo County, leading the agency to drop the possibility of charging at the San Mateo County border. But Moscovitch said Bay Area cities seem to be coming around to the idea, noting the successful introduction of demand-based toll pricing on the Bay Bridge. “The environment that we had [in 2010]… was such that in addition to hitting a major recession, which is not a great time to talk about charging anybody more for anything, we also, I believe, did not have the region prepared for this. And that’s a situation that we often have,” said Moscovitch. ”We in San Francisco tend to lead the charge on ideas that then take some time to mature.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Regional Transportation Plan includes a list ranking transportation projects based on factors like cost-benefit ratios and ability to meet goals like reducing greenhouse gas emissions and congestion. Second and third on the list, respectively, were congestion pricing for Treasure Island and downtown San Francisco. (The first was a package of improvements for BART’s core system, including a turnaround track at Civic Center.)

Other revenue options include a regional Vehicle Miles Traveled fee, which the MTC is studying. The SFCTA said it is also considering demand-based parking pricing, which is being tested with SFPark, in its plan for managing downtown congestion — an idea supported by SPUR. As Moscovitch noted, there’s little political will for a regional increase in gas taxes, the revenue from which is decreasing as cars because more fuel-efficient.

Muni, meanwhile, barely has enough funding to provide existing service needs, with overcrowded vehicles that break down routinely. The subway under Market Street, said Supervisor Scott Wiener at the board meeting, is “absolutely incapable of carrying the load that we have today, let alone thousands of new” residents. ”To me, it’s outrageous that we’ve had [light rail vehicles] that have been out of service for ten or 12 years,” which Muni has only started repairing recently, he said.

“Part of what the [SFCTA's] Budget Czar game is demonstrating,” said Terplan of SPUR, “is that it’s very easy in transportation to focus on the new projects and the new expansions, but the biggest bulk of needs that we have are simply maintaining the existing system and improving them slightly.”