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Keep open mind on ‘congestion pricing’

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The San Francisco Transportation Authority is embarking on a study to see if a concept known as “congestion pricing” might work to reduce traffic congestion here in San Francisco.

Congestion pricing — a strategy that has been successful in Singapore, London and, most recently, Stockholm — is a system where motorists pay a user fee to drive on the city’s most congested streets. Fees, collected through electronic transponders, would be higher at the most congested times and lower or free at others. The revenues from the charge would then be reinvested in improvements to the transportation system, from signal coordination to transit, bike and pedestrian enhancements.

Why consider a transportation management strategy like congestion pricing? Like other cities in the U.S. and around the world, San Francisco struggles to provide a balanced system that meets the transportation needs of our businesses, visitors and residents. Over the past several years, we have made great strides in improving our Transit First system with the passage of Proposition K, The City’s half-cent transportation sales tax, and supportive policies.

However, our efforts aren’t keeping pace with rising car ownership rates, regional growth and other trends that keep demand for car travel high. As a result, workers, visitors and goods vehicles waste valuable time and energy waiting in traffic, tothe harm of our economy, environment and stress levels.

Even today, with congestion levels below what they were during the dot-com boom, vehicle speeds in many parts of town average between 5-10 miles per hour. This results in frustrated drivers and hinders reliable bus service. The economic recovery we are experiencing, coupled with renewed growth and development in SoMa and other districts, portend a return of vehicular gridlock that we can ill afford.

The City is constantly working to increase transportation investment, raise the efficiency and performance of Muni and create more walkable and livable streets. To this aim, we should consider congestion pricing, given the success it has shown elsewhere in the world at harnessing car use and generating revenues for system improvement.

While the notion that drivers should pay for road use strikes some as unfair or extreme, many of us do it every day, by paying for on-street parking or bridge tolls. We also pay user fees for other utilities, such as water, energy, transit and telecom. San Francisco’s streets account for 30 percent of The City’s land area; they are a precious resource that needs to be managed efficiently.

As with anything that is overused — and underfunded — we must consider the possibility that the price of road use is too low. A congestion charge may sound costly and inequitable at first. However, a road user fee can actually re-balance the equation to make the current system less costly in terms of motorist delays, lost sales, efficient goods movement and environmental damage, and more equitable in terms of faster buses and safer streets for walking, cycling, and driving than the current system.

Experience around the world suggests that road user fees can be an effective way to improve a city’s accessibility, environmental quality and economic vitality. Traffic congestion is down 18 percent in London and 25 percent in Stockholm. Transituse is up, and the programs are generating significant revenues for transportation infrastructure development. London continues to thrive, and business sales in the Stockholm pricing zone are actually up 5 percent because drivers have to pay in both directions across the pricing cordon — making that trip to the suburbs less attractive than shopping locally near home.

But in order to move ahead in this direction, we need to be sure that the San Francisco solution fits our congestion problem. Although several conditions suggest a pricing system may work well here, San Francisco’s congestion profile, transit system and role in the regional economy are quite different from other places where pricing has been implemented. We must be careful to take these considerations into account when designing and evaluating potential pricing alternatives.

A thorough and inclusive study process is the best way to vet these ideas and determine whether a congestion charge is right for San Francisco. The federal government believes the concept has potential: The U.S. Department of Transportation recently awarded the Transportation Authority $1 million in grant funds to conduct a feasibility study of area pricing, making San Francisco the first city in the nation to receive such support.

Coupled with other local resources, this budget will fund a community-based and technical study process that brings stakeholders together with international experts over the next 18 months to consider the newest potential tool in our transportation system management toolkit.

Let’s keep an open mind about congestion pricing. What we find may surprise even the most skeptical among us.

Jake McGoldrick is a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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