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

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.”

  • San Mateo torpedoed the idea of congestion pricing by saying they’d do it too as retaliation!

    San Francisco, walk the walk, call that a Good Thing and let them! Especially with high cross-border commutes, this makes perfect sense. Get the GGBHTD to do the same (Mayor Boro’s gone; maybe San Rafael will be more reasonable), and you have a much more reasonable system for the whole city and region.

    Buses and ferries become more competitive for Marin; buses, shuttles, and trains become more competitive for the Peninsula and for San Francisco out-commuters.

  • Anonymous

    Right on! The weekday evening outbound congestion pricing option is seriously needed now. Not just to clear up the roads but to try to reduce the amount of cancer causing particulate matter in the air all of these new babies being born to parents by the Bay Bridge breathe in in Rincon Hill…. Over 300 last at counted …. Luckily, San Francisco’s Dept. of a Public Health and Tom Ammiano’s Article 38 has us lined up to justify congestion pricing as a matter of protecting the health of San Franciscans. Read more here: http://www.sfdph.org/dph/eh/Air/default.asp

  • Anonymous

    Congestion pricing makes plenty of sense – both ways.  San Mateo County charging in the opposite direction isn’t just “retaliation”, it’s basic logic.  These days, the commute pattern goes both ways – there are many people commuting from SF to the Peninsula/South Bay, in addition to people who commute to San Francisco.   So there should be an economic incentive to stay off the road at rush hour, and take transit if possible, regardless of which way you commute.

  • mikesonn

    That top picture says it all, enforce the bus only lanes.

    Start charging more for parking and up RPPs to equal muni fast passes on a monthly basis.

    Don’t get me wrong, congestion pricing is the way to go but let’s start hitting the the low hanging fruit. And if we weren’t dumping money in all these useless projects, we’d have money for projects that would actually improve speed and reliability and not hamstring the agency with higher operating costs.

  • VCS

    Yep, it will be great when every upper-crust suburb in America implements “congestion pricing” to keep the riff-raff out. For historical flair, perhaps it could begin at sundown. Marin County Liberalism FTW.

  • voltairesmistress

     If I read the cliche, “low hanging fruit” one more time, I’m going to start excerpting portions of E.B. White’s Elements of Style and pasting them onto my Streetsblog posts.

  • voltairesmistress

    Does anyone know whether congestion pricing would be more effective if placed only on certain stretches of highways and on-/off-ramps, rather than within cities — something, in other words, to discourage commuting by single occupancy private cars?  Or do various downtowns and corporate office parks also need this because of high numbers of intra-city/intra-town commutes via car by in-town residents?  I don’t know what local commute pattern studies have shown.

    I ask too, because I wonder what possibly unintended social and economic effects on cities and towns might occur if certain sectors within those urban areas became very expensive to enter and exit on a street by street basis.  To take San Francisco as an example, the proposed NE congestion sector (southern border on 18th Street/Western border on Webster(?)) could become even an even more rarified place, with only very wealthy people and their friends freely visiting during many hours of the day.  We probably don’t want to Balkanize any city.

  • voltairesmistress

    Does anyone know whether congestion pricing would be more effective if placed only on certain stretches of highways and on-/off-ramps, rather than within cities — something, in other words, to discourage commuting by single occupancy private cars?  Or do various downtowns and corporate office parks also need this because of high numbers of intra-city/intra-town commutes via car by in-town residents?  I don’t know what local commute pattern studies have shown.

    I ask too, because I wonder what possibly unintended social and economic effects on cities and towns might occur if certain sectors within those urban areas became very expensive to enter and exit on a street by street basis.  To take San Francisco as an example, the proposed NE congestion sector (southern border on 18th Street/Western border on Webster(?)) could become even an even more rarified place, with only very wealthy people and their friends freely visiting during many hours of the day.  We probably don’t want to Balkanize any city.

  • Anonymous

    Or people can just take public transit, walk, or bicycle, all of which are dirt cheap. No need to be so dramatic about using common sense to start internalizing the true cost of the damage done by cars to our health, the environment, and the livability of our cities.

  • mikesonn

     Settle down, I think the world will keep turning.

  • mikesonn

    Upper-crust suburbs in America already keep the “riff-raff” out by ensuring they are in car-centric communities. Marin County LIberalism, as I assume you define it, would be more closely associated with not allowing BART and now trying to shut down SMART. The poor people are on the bus, the sooner we all accept that, the better off we ALL will be.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Most effective by far would be region-wide congestion pricing, requiring people to pay tolls on every freeway and street where there is now congestion and setting the price high enough to eliminate the congestion.  This would pretty much eliminate the political pressure for new freeway expansions, which comes from people stuck in freeway traffic, and so it would also help to control sprawl.

    But this is hard to implement politically, because it would require GPS to track where cars are driving, so you could charge them for driving where it is congested.  There is political resistance to this because of privacy concerns; but there are ways of addressing those concerns, primarily by allowing the devices to keep data on how many miles people drove in areas with different levels of congestion but not to keep data on which streets they drove on.

    Oregon is considering a GPS based VMT fee to replace the gas tax, and it would probably have congestion pricing built in. If that goes through, I hope it will be widely imitated.

    It is much easier politically to implement cordon pricing, because you don’t have to track all drivers’ movements.  It is more like tolls on bridges, which just track when drivers cross a given line.

  • HoJo

    Segregation by class certainly doesn’t require a car-centric community. Planes, trains and ships all maintain different classes of travel, at different price structures, to keep people apart, so the longstanding American idea to be diversified but still separate cannot be pinned on the car culture. Indeed, on the road, everyone is equal – the Rolls Royce has to wait in line with the old jalopey.

    As for Marin and SMART, I don’t think they’re so worried about riffraff from Sonoma County. But either way, what transit Marin wishes to have, or not have, is a matter for Marinites only.

  • Charles_Siegel

    This is a very narrow-minded view of the world, which just looks at class divisions in America.

    World-wide, the division is between the affluent people who have cars and the “riff-raff” who do not have cars.  The affluent cause global warming, and the “riff-raff” suffer most from its effects.

  • HoJo

    But Charles, that neat dichotomy falls down when you consider somewhere like the Bay Area. Out in the burbs, say Stockton or Tracey, it is obligatory to have a car, and so even the poor somehow manage to run a vehicle, even if it has to be an old banger.

    While a millionaire hedge fund manager living in Russian Hill really doesn’t need a car at all. Our family income is 200K pa but we really hardly use our car at all, and could easily get rid of it – we walk, bike or take muni.

    It might be tempting to claim that car drivers are rich and privileged, but the truth is rather more complex, nuanced and inconvenient.

  • Ted King

    Typo in the second paragraph :
    s/80 percent ($52 million)/80 percent ($52 billion)/

  • voltaire – you can come look at my pear tree. Nothing on the lower branches. The top branches have rotting fruit I am hoping will drop so I can throw them away. It’s not a cliche for no reason.

  • Has London been balkanized?

  • HoJo – San Francisco is building Doyle Drive at great cost, for the primary benefit of Marinites. Perhaps SF should have given Marin the finger instead?

  • mikesonn

    The thing with places like Stockton and Tracey (both hit very very very hard by the recession mind you, and it wasn’t just a coincidence) is that there was an assumption that cheap housing was enough, but those people forgot to factor in transportation costs. I could go buy a house out there but then slug for 2 hrs each way to work with all the associated costs and lost time.

  • Ted King

    The subway under Market Street, said Supervisor Scott Wiener at the
    board meeting, is “absolutely incapable of carrying the load that we
    have today,

    Sup. Weiner needs to talk to some railroad planners. The problem is NOT a lack of capacity in the Muni Metro level of the MSS. It is rather a combination of platform under-utilization and not rigging two-car consists at every opportunity. The platforms are long enough for a BART-style consist and could be treated like a double platform.

    Muni should be asked if their control system could support double platform operations and whether or not they have the software on the shelf for such an upgrade in utilization of existing capacity. Beyond getting a “yes” to those two questions there would need to be a lot of modeling done to overcome the safety concerns of having two trains at a particular platform (*) at the same time.

    * Note – The MSS (Market St. Subway) stations have an inbound and an outbound platform that share their access points at the island stations (Van Ness through Embarcadero). Thus double platform operations could have up to four (4) trains (and up to eight [8] cars !) in any one station at a time.

  • Tony Kelly

    good article, and even better comments by voltaire, jamiewhitaker, and aslevin.  the commuting traffic in and out of SF takes a very heavy toll on our economy and people’s lives, and it needs to be priced more realistically.

  • HoJo

    London really doesn’t have variable congestion pricing. It simply has a downtown zone that you have to pay to enter – Westminster and the City. It’s a fixed fee and there is no ability to vary that by location, time or demand.

    Traffic speeds have increased in London as a result, albeit from an absymal level of about 7 mph. As for London being Balkanized, well, it’s always been that way. It’s a collection of villages and people who live there don’t say they live in London – they say they live in Camden, Wapping, Brixton, Notting Hill and so on.

    Finally, London has a first-rate transit system. SF is nowhere remotely close to that.

  • mikesonn

    That’s because our buses are stuck behind drivers ignoring bus only lanes.

  • Mutie

    What is the objective of congestion pricing?  To raise revenue?  Or to modify behavior?  If it’s to raise revenue, then this is small beans.  

    If transit systems want to raise revenue they need to think beyond the fare box.  Look to the Asian transit systems.  They get most of their revenue from rent in and near their stations.  With the huge number of people going through every transit station, why doesn’t every bay area station have shops, vendors, and cafes, like every other transit system in the world?  The rent revenue through them could be tremendous.  And, the riders would be even more drawn to the transit with these extra services available.

  • Anonymous

    in terms of increasing the price of RPP to equal or exceed a transit pass, I think we’re stuck with a bad law right now.  There is a law – I think at the state level – that prohibits cities from charging for a Residential Parking Permit any higher than the cost of administrating the program.  So right now you can’t legally use a price signal to encourage transit over owning and storing a car.  

  • Mutie

    This is a terrible way to make transit more competitive.  Make all other options worse, so people have to take transit.

    What about making transit better?  Faster, better, cheaper?  Or are we admitting that is not possible?

  • mikesonn

    Because BART is a large park-n-ride.

    But I’d say congestion pricing is to reduce congestion first (modify behavior w/ stick) with the funds raised being invested into transit (reinforce modifying w/ carrot).

  • mikesonn

    You can’t have one without the other really.

  • mikesonn

    Yes, there is a law that does just that. There has been work to change it, but it isn’t happening nearly fast enough. Suburban laws hamstringing urban areas.

  • As long as private automobiles are fast, good, and cheap, people won’t demand better transit. Without that demand, it won’t happen.

  • voltairesmistress

     A really interesting, if a bit complex, point you are making.  This seems like a topic for a whole article or series by Streetsblog — if and how the muni underground can be used more intensively to carry thousands more people.

  • voltairesmistress

     Great point.  It does seem like many BART stations are NOT park & ride spots, so these more urban stations on both sides of the Bay could be developed into thriving commercial centers.  Except for the platforms, do we really need so much space devoted to pure corridors?  Why not have flowers, food, optometry shops, small stores, and the like in many stations?  I think BART was established to look and feel sleek and high tech.  We are past that now.  Time to integrate BART into a vital streetscape, even if that ‘scape is underground.

  • mikesonn

    Wait, what? BART stations aren’t park-n-rides? Um, probably want to take another look at the map.

  • mtp

    Having moved to Berlin, Germany after over six years in the Bay Area, I can’t say I miss an iota of the day-to-day life realities of S.F. Not once have I wanted or truly needed a car here. I can legitimately get to any destination I want on the practical and frequently local rail, by bike or car. I can’t say this for S.F. Muni was an insult and only someone suffering from Stockholm syndrome could like or be proud of. Don’t even get me started on BART or its pithy excuses.

    I guess what I am saying is that The Bay Area felt like a hopeless infrastructure cause. Nothing really worked, and I grew to impatient on its daily wear down on my life. Combined with the lack of *regional* urban planning courage in the face of pathetic NIMBYs, creativity, and just long term planning foresight, enough was enough.

  • Well, if you can get that past the protests from the people who invested in B&M locations near the BART station….

  • Ted King

     Here’s some questions that need published answers :
    1) Can the control system in the MSS handle double platform operations ?
    2) Is the software available (either as an upgrade or an inactive option) ?
    3) Has the modeling been done to assure safe operation ?
    3) Have the passenger flows through the stations been modeled to determine maximums with consideration of fire safety / evacuation needs ? In other words, how big of a crowd can be waiting on the platform before SFFD says “NO MAS !” ?

  • Ted King

    Parking info for the BART system and station-by-station (no summary map) :
     http://www.bart.gov/guide/parking/index.aspx

  • Anonymous

    This tool looks to be based on the following document: http://people.mills.edu/mhenderson/ppol230/handouts/Case%202%20-%20SF%20Transportation%20Plan/Agenda%20Packet%209.pdf

  • mikesonn

    33 or 44 stations have parking, most in very large quantities right next to the station where mixed-use could (and should) be.

    Also look at the fact that BART strongly favors suburban sprawl stations (in highway medians no less!) over urban infill stations.

  • Anonymous

    Just running all trains as two car would help deal with the overcrowding problem, and the speed and capacity problems. The trains have a slow average speed because they spend so much time waiting for passengers to filter slowly onto the train into the limited space through the few available doors. Double berthing wouldn’t be necessary if the trains could reduce the time spent at platforms to a reliable 30 seconds. And as a double car train takes up only a small amount of extra space in the subway as compared to a one car train (most of the ‘space’ a train takes up while moving is stopping distance for the next train), you can double the capacity of each train with pretty much no reduction to the number of trains that can travel through the subway at any given time.

    Best of all, once you’re bought the trains, the only ongoing operating cost is maintenance- labor costs remain the same as you need one operator per train, regardless of whether the train is one or two cars long. No upgrades are required to the control system as it is already capable of running two car trains, although the control system should still be upgraded for other reasons. It seems like a quick cheap shot in the arm for the Muni Metro and I have no idea why they are not exploring it. Maybe because it’s just not as sexy as a new subway tunnel.

    Also worth noting that every Muni Metro line can take two car trains except the J, and that can be fixed simply by closing the stops at Liberty and 21st St. There are nearby stops at 20th and 22nd St so very few riders would be inconvenienced. The J is the last line which would benefit from two car trains as it has the lowest ridership, but it’s easy to do if required.

  • Anonymous

    Also interesting that that document shows a potential Central Subway extension entirely on Stockton St, with no turn onto Columbus. Presumably stations would be at Washington Square (Stockton between Union and Filbert) and at the redeveloped Muni depot (Stockton between North Point and Beach).

  • Anonymous

    tinyurl.com/8rezfs7