SF Congestion Pricing Study Moves Forward Without San Mateo Boundary

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Flickr photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/dragonbe/4039603075/##Michaelangelo van Dam##

The study analyzing numerous options for congestion pricing in San Francisco touched off such a political furor in San Mateo County, you’d have thought San Francisco was about to moat up and charge a fee for admission. Politicians and planners from Daly City and San Mateo spoke about the plan today as though they were jilted lovers getting a mandate from the beautiful city to their north without being allowed to get a word in edgewise.

“It hasn’t been a conversation with San Mateo County, it has been a monologue with San Mateo County,” said State Assemblymember Jerry Hill, who testified with numerous San Mateo officials at the board meeting of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), which conducted the study. Hill said he and others from San Mateo County were supportive of efforts to reduce congestion and deal with climate impacts, but not if it included charging drivers to cross the county line.

In case San Francisco didn’t move affirmatively to drop the Southern Gateway option from the study, said Hill, he was prepared to introduce legislation that would make it illegal for one county charge other counties “punitive measures” like pricing.

“I am a professional supporter of appropriate congestion pricing,” said Richard Napier, executive director of the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County (C/CAG). But Napier warned that congestion pricing worked in cities like London and Stockholm because the charging areas were dense and transit was good, much like the northeast portion of San Francisco. Of the southern gateway option, Napier said, “I don’t think it would meet the criteria” for significantly reducing traffic.

Following San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd’s lead, the Board of Supervisors, in their capacity as SFCTA directors, voted 9-2 to strip the San Mateo option from the study. The board then voted 8-3 to give the SFCTA staff permission to seek federal funding to continue studying the two Northeast Cordon options and to enter into environmental review. SFCTA executive director Jose Luis Moscovich explained to Streetsblog that he would submit a grant for up to $2 million in federal funding for the next phase of the study, at which point the city would be expected to match with about $400,000 in local funds.

The two remaining pricing options would establish a London-style cordon that would use FasTrak and camera technology to charge drivers during peak periods for crossing into the zone, which would be bordered by 18th Street to the south, Guerrero/Laguna Street to the west and the Bay to the north and east.

One of the cordon scenarios would charge $3 (with a maximum of $6 daily) from 6-9 am and from 3-7 pm, raising an estimated $80 million net for transit and non-driving mobility options like bicycling and pedestrian improvements. This option would also reduce traffic up to 12 percent, emissions up to 16 percent, and would be expected to improve transit times by up to 20 percent.

The other cordon 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, an option studied after evening business interests worried the charge would discourage downtown visitors for dinner and shows. This would raise $70 million annually for transit and would have fewer traffic and emissions reductions benefits than the morning and evening scenario.

Michaela Alioto-Pier, Carmen Chu, and Bevan Dufty, the three dissenting supervisors who voted against even studying pricing further, all said the current economic situation made them reluctant to add a further fee for driving into certain parts of the city. Chu noted the city has numerous other options for pricing, including better parking management, such as the SFPark trial and other scenarios.

Alioto-Pier was particularly insistent in her opposition to the study, saying until the ramification of the new fee and tax measure Proposition 26 was clearer, she didn’t think the city should move ahead with spending money on something that might never pass.

She also said the impact to small businesses would be too great to bear and that the current study didn’t demonstrate those impacts sufficiently. Of the southern gateway, she said the lack of regional support was disconcerting and that pricing sent the wrong signal to people outside the zone. “To me it looks like a fee to enter San Francisco,” she said.

After the vote, SFCTA chair Ross Mirkarimi lauded his fellow directors for the decision, though he said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome. “This is the natural course of how a conversation and a potential study would unfold. I’m not surprised,” he said. “We have been effective in stimulating the larger discussion.”

Moscovich pledged to do significant work to demonstrate the impacts pricing would have on small businesses and said the SFCTA has about one month to submit its application to the federal government. As to whether or not the city would eventually adopt pricing to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, he responded affirmatively.

“I think it’s inescapable. We don’t’ have that many strategies, we’ve already done everything else,” said Moscovich. “We already are a large transit-oriented development, this city. We’re already putting people next to their jobs. The next frontier is pricing.”

  • Mission Mom

    Poor Chavez, San Jose Avenue, Potrero, Guerrero. Traffic sewers for another 20 years?

  • Nick

    Does San Francisco really have the moral authority to tell other counties what the future should like like?

    Examples of where SF gets it wrong:

    -When you bike into the city from San Mateo County you can tell where the exact border is when you cross over. How? The fresh black pavement ends mid-block and you’re suddenly in pothole-ridden SF.

    -Mission Street in Daly City has a center median and traffic calming. In SF, it has chaos.

    -There are only a few ways a pedestrian can enter San Francisco. Each is more dangerous than the last. Try it sometime.

  • The next frontier is pricing.

    The next frontier may be pricing, but it doesn’t have to be that, and it doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be only that.

    If we gave people the option to ride their bikes into, through, and out of the city, we’d all be a lot better off — increased economic opportunities for individuals and communities, increased individual and community health, increased number of clean-air days, increased road capacity, increased economic activity, increased city/community/Bay Area resiliency, etc. — and it would at least act as a pressure-release valve for auto-packed roadways.

    Right now, there’s a real physical barrier to getting into and out of the city on bike — never mind the insane biking conditions within the city.

    Even a zillion dollars is not going to allow us to continue to drive more and bigger cars into the city at various times — we need to allow people to get around under their own power, in space-efficient vehicles like their own bodies (i.e. walking), like bicycles, etc.

    Here’s to hoping advocates can start speaking more clearly and forcefully about the goals of decongestion pricing.

  • It would be nice to think we can have rational discussions about the future of the entire region re: traffic and the best ways to combat it. We cannot. The Board has blown their credibility with non binding resolutions and the like, and the suburbs’ knee jerk NIMBY ZOMG GIMME GIMME FREE FREE bs ensure that people will scream epithets and nothing will change.

    Hey, SMC, how’s that 101 working out for you? It’s been a fucking parking lot since I can remember, and it’s not getting better despite tempter tantrums!

  • =v= Jerry Hill was the guy who sponsored the bill to reduce fines for motorists who run STOP signs, in case you’re wondering where his priorities are.

  • Just raise the damn parking tax. QED.

  • Michael

    @John Murphy: The parking tax doesn’t affect people who have free employer-provided parking, an important group in terms of downtown congestion. Also, the parking tax (assuming you mean the commercial off-street parking tax) doesn’t fluctuate based on time of day, so it’s not a very efficient way to target congestion during the busiest hours.

    The ultimate goal for congestion pricing should be to charge people based not just on where they drive (i.e. into a busy area), but also how far they drive. That way, people pay the full cost of the externalities they impose on everyone else through congestion and pollution. That would have to be a regional effort headed by MTC, so don’t hold your breath, but this is a step in the right direction. Parking charges are important, but they can’t charge based on distance traveled, so they’re not a long term solution to making people pay the full cost of driving.

  • @Michael and the gas tax…

  • @Michael and a parcel tax on parking spots…

  • Skip

    Come on Streetsblog. I usually agree with you (given that I bike to work 5 days a week), but this measure has nothing to do with congestion. I lived and commuted regularly in Connecticut and Massachusetts cities (Boston, Hartford, Bridgeport, Greenwich, NYC) before moving here, and San Francisco/Bay Area is a dream compared with Boston and its suburbs or Southwestern CT/NY.

    So – lets get to the real reason why the Supervisors want this. In case you haven’t heard, the city is broke and in desperate need of money. Since any increase in the parcel tax or other taxes now require a 2/3 majority of voters in a city-wide referendum, they can’t muster the votes for raising taxes on homeowners. This is easier, and has the potential to raise a lot of cash quickly. Since it will affect mostly out of town commuters, all the better! They aren’t a voting constituency.

    But, there’s no talk of revenue sharing with transit agencies in those other communities whose citizens would be affected, even though those agencies would be under more stress because of SF’s policy. Why? Because that would cut into the money that the supervisors could use for their pet projects and wildly expensive city employees. Hence the reason for the backlash from a more conservative and better governed San Mateo County. I would bet that if this wasn’t unilateral, but part of a larger more integrated Bay Area transit policy (and a transit funding sharing deal already proposed) we’d see more support. And lets face it, we should come up with some sweeteners for those other transit agencies if we want to get a better developed, more integrated transit infrastructure. Muni just isn’t going to be able to do it alone. So Streetsblog let’s be more realistic about the reasons why this has been proposed than just “it’s the green thing to do! (TM)”.

  • It’s weird, living in the city and depending almost totally on my bike, and not really having to commute near the freeways at all, I’m not even really aware of the street congestion, let alone freeway congestion (only ever been on them a handful of times).

    It’s strange how much people can be against even studying or piloting anything. What are they afraid of except success? Noe Valley Plaza comes to mind… by the way, might I point out that San Mateo County is one of the richest in America… just a thought.

  • @Skip – The real question is whether it’s the right thing to do. Who inflicts costs and who pays for them?

  • JMC

    Can you go into more detail on the 9-2 vote? Who were the 2 who voted to keep the San Mateo option?

  • @Skip,
    Congestion pricing will require a 2/3 majority to pass as well. There is tons of talk of revenue sharing with the transit agencies who would be under “stress” because of the policy. That’s why SamTrans/Caltrain, BART and Muni have all been at the table as the study has progressed.

    For pretty much every agency outside of BART and Muni, more ridership would not be considered “stress” but a blessing.

    In talking to TA staff and the BoS, I think performance targets would certainly be attached to the money, which would be very interesting. Imagine if Muni were told it was getting $20M, but that the service had to meet a certain standard or they wouldn’t get the money the next year. I would imagine Muni (or any other agency) would figure out how to get good at delivering efficient service.

    And mind you, it’s still 3 years of study and talking and meetings before they would even get to the point of trying a pilot or doing more study.

    Daly and Mar voted against the motion to remove San Mateo option from further study.

  • Forget the parking tax and better parking management, congestion pricing is good because it specifically limits a driver’s sense of being able to drive anywhere they please even if its congested, etc. and because it helps to start adding a real price to each and every trip. It helps to provide an indicator for how much driving, on any given trip, will cost. The sunk costs of car ownership are so deep sometimes and people are in such complete denial that transit is actually often more affordable than driving. I’m surprised they caved so easily on the San Mateo option. Caltrain has a lot of extra capacity right now…

    – J

  • Matt

    I’ve chatted with some friends about this topic, and have come to the conclusion that we’ll never sell congestion pricing to the public. People are irrational about fees and fares. They’ll drive twice as far to the Palo Alto IKEA just to avoid paying the bridge toll for the Emeryville IKEA.

    Instead, let’s (1) raise the parking tax, including a parcel tax for employer-provided parking, and (2) enforce the transit lanes! This will raise revenue and improve transit commute times. It will also further congest traffic lanes, which will itself dissuade some people from driving (especially when they see the buses zipping by).

  • Nick

    Maybe they should put a bicycle tax on the Wiggle while they’re at it. That route is just too congested and will only get worse unless something is done.

    Seriously, the vast majority of people do not view driving as inherently bad. Punitive measures based on moral judgements is not a way to further a cause.

  • @Nick,
    I think for some readers here it’s a moral issue, but not for the planners at SFCTA. They are looking at data showing up to $2 billion in lost productivity due to congestion and trying to figure out how to improve the situation. Whether their solution will ever be adopted is a planning and political issue.

    I personally don’t think there will be congestion pricing anytime soon, unless there are some dramatic changes in the zeitgeist around the negative impacts of driving. I also don’t think we have the same level of traffic that existed in the dot-com era. Unless you live near the approaches to the Bay Bridge, you probably don’t see traffic as a nightmare. I know I don’t think of everything north of 18th Street as a traffic nightmare, for instance.

    I lived in NYC for eight years, though, so my traffic threshold may be skewed.

  • The Board of Supervisors could dramatically reduce traffic congestion as soon as tomorrow if they wanted to without studies or implementing expensive technology that will eat away at any revenues brought in. How? By ceasing to offer discounted early bird parking rates at city garages! Garages in the most congested areas of the city encourage people to come during the most congested commute hours by offering cheap parking ($10 or $11/day) if a car is in by 9am or 10am and out by 7pm.

    It’s as if we want people to travel right at peak traffic times. To complain about cars traveling during peak hours and then reward them for it by offering them parking discounts is ludicrous. San Francisco should instead offer anti-congestion parking rates for in by 7am out by 3pm (or in after 10 am, out after 8pm.) Otherwise, parking downtown during the most congested periods should cost at least $5/hr or $20 per day.

    Sometimes it’s less important to do the spiffiest, high tech thing possible, and instead just stop doing the stupid, bonehead things we’re currently doing.

  • EL

    Since we’re on the subject of congestion pricing, has anyone seen any studies by the MTC for the Bay Bridge’s change in tolls that were implemented on July 1, 2010?

    The last study I saw was this one, but that was only 3 weeks worth of data.


  • It’s a waste of money to continue studying congestion pricing, since it will never happen in SF. Selling it to the public will be impossible, especially if a 2/3 vote is required as per Prop. 26, and I don’t see why a fee like this wouldn’t fall under that proposition.

    A poll last year showed that the idea is already unpopular in SF: http://www.sfchamber.com/newspolicy/policy/special/sfcc_citybeat_poll09.pdf

    It’s typical of the city’s anti-car movement that they are completely oblivious to the interests of businesses downtown—hotels, restaurants, shops and department stores.

  • Rob, speeding up transit by 20% doesn’t matter to you at all? Oh that’s right, it is bike traffic that is really gutting MUNI’s on-time performance.


  • The issue I raised is the impact to downtown businesses. Aren’t you interested in a healthy city economy? Tourism is our largest industry. Last year it brought in more than $426 million to the city’s coffers. Why would we want to damage that crucial part of our economy? (http://www.sfcvb.org/media/downloads/research/taxrevenue.pdf)

    Since you brought up Muni, let’s take a look at that issue. I’ve written a number of posts on how the Bicycle Plan is going to delay Muni lines on city streets. I’ll link to a verbatim republication on my blog of an Examiner story last year that confirms that opinion (I’d link to the story itself, but the link I have doesn’t work anymore): http://district5diary.blogspot.com/2009/06/bicycle-plan-will-screw-up-city-traffic.html

    The assumption that traffic in downtown SF is somehow comparable to that of London, a city of ten million people, is ridiculous.

    Forget it. Congestion pricing will never happen in San Francisco. If it gets on the ballot, it won’t even get a majority, let alone a 2/3 vote as per Prop. 26.

    Of course if the Bicycle Plan was on the ballot, it wouldn’t pass either.

  • @Nick – As I wrote earlier, the real question is whether it’s the right thing to do, given who inflicts costs and who pays for them. One could argue that this is a “moral” concern, but does that argument actually say anything meaningful?

    Motorists are propped up by a staggering amount of subsidy, and congestion pricing would only require them to pay for a fraction of that. To characterize that as “punitive” suggests that you value the entitlements that motorists enjoy, and undervalue the costs inflicted on the rest of us (and hey, assigning values like that is a “moral” choice, by definition).

  • gibraltar

    I’m a pragmatist in these cases. I’m in favor of anything that makes it more difficult to own and operate a car.

  • ZA

    A few comments…

    1. To those who think its ridiculous to compare London’s congestion to San Francisco’s – actually try to do your research first. Here’s a start: http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/statistics/datatablespublications/roads/congestion/

    What car-loving charge-fearing Londoners found was that they could love their cars AND the congestion charge when it actually improved their travel time.

    2. Impact to Downtown Business – I think that’s a red herring, because:

    – Tourists are most active outside the peak commuting hours & usually use MUNI or taxis to get around SF. From what I’ve observed from my own car renting, tourists mainly rent cars to journey far beyond SF than to drive within it.
    – Retailers plying the tourist trade are either on MUNI, or complete their drives and deliveries outside the peak commuting hours
    – Conference-goers generally stay close to Moscone Center.
    – High downtown parking fees have not significantly deterred out-of-town shoppers
    – Bridge tolls, high parking fees, and congestion have not significantly deterred out-of-town revelers in North Beach (much to the annoyance of SFPD).

    3. ZOMG, it’s a Recession! – Another red herring. Frankly, if we still have a recession in 2015, a congestion charge will be the least of our worries.

    4. Who is going to be hurt by the congestion charge in the NE quadrant? Cross-town San Franciscan drivers in the main, some who need to drive, some who don’t, many who are already paying high downtown parking prices (and arguably can afford $3-6 more a day). We have 5 years to figure this out so that it works for everyone.

    A congestion charge isn’t magic, it won’t destroy rights or magically transform San Francisco into a utopia, but it is one tool to start to “decouple” a high quality of life from the car.

    As a San Franciscan, I want to say to all my Bay Area neighbors that I love you, I want you enjoying my city, but the fair thing for everyone is to leave that car parked at home unless you really need it.

    If San Mateo erects a vehicular entry fee, then I’ll pay it when I drive, and avoid it when I take BART, SamTrans, or Caltrain.

  • Mere assertions without any evidence. You’re entitled to your religion, but it’s not necessarily the basis for good public policy.

  • Hill hater

    Jerry Hill is a thug & Neanderthal. Anyone who threatens another county for studying–studying!!–policy options should not hold elected office.

  • Hill is only representing his constituency. It’s a symptom of San Francisco’s civic narcissism that anyone is surprised at the negative reaction in San Mateo County when the study proposes monitoring seven roads on our border to levy fees on motorists entering our city from the South (the “Southern Gateway” option, page 24). The Board of Supervisors recognized the folly of even proposing and/or studying that idea when they stripped it from future studies.

    More relevant to the prospects that city voters will ratify congestion pricing is the report’s admission that city motorists will be affected more than those driving into SF from elsewhere:

    “Despite perceptions that regional travelers contribute the most to congestion in the greater downtown area, in fact San Francisco travelers account for the greatest number of trips, followed by East Bay travelers. Of the 120,000 automobile vehicle trips in the p.m. peak, intra-San Francisco trips account for more than 70 percent of this travel demand. This finding belies the common perception that downtown traffic congestion is caused primarily by regional travelers (page 11).”

    How likely is it that city voters will approve—by a 2/3 margin!—a fee on themselves whenever they drive to the downtown neighborhoods of their own city?

    Another interesting point raised by this study: Supervisor Dufty, a candidate for mayor, voted against more study of congestion pricing, which means the issue is now on the table for all candidates for mayor in next year’s election. All candidates will now have to alienate either city voters or the anti-car movement led by the Bicycle Coalition.

  • Sprague

    ZA: Your comments in support of congestion pricing seem reasonable and persuasive.

    Congestion pricing certainly seems worth pursuing on a local level, but a concerted, regional approach to reduce driving and its ill effects (with higher gas taxes, VMT and/or highway tolling) would be even better. It’s too bad that regional bodies (like the MTC) aren’t really moving such plans along, but at least SF’s leaders are more seriously contemplating improvements to the status quo.


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