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SF to consider charging money to drive on ‘crookedest street’

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Supervisor Mark Farrell is looking into charging a toll to drive down Lombard Street. (James Chan/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A black-and-white photo depicting construction of San Francisco’s “crookedest street” in 1922 shows two autos at the bottom of Lombard Street, and, conspicuously, only two people are visible. One of the men gestures his arm wide at the empty, curvaceous road.

Fast forward nearly a century, and Lombard Street has become a neighborhood nightmare, residents say. Floods of vehicles line up to visit and grind traffic to a standstill, blowing constant exhaust into nearby homes. The bottom of the crooked street resembles a miniature Woodstock Festival.

Now, in perhaps an unexpected turn, San Francisco will study charging vehicles to access the 95-year-old icon, oft-called “the crookedest street in the world.”

The street “has zero infrastructure in place,” said Supervisor Mark Farrell, whose district includes Lombard Street and who is initiating the effort to consider a toll there. “The time has come for The City to step in and step up.”

Pricing has yet to be determined, Farrell said, but would likely be higher for unscheduled visitors to encourage people to reserve ahead of time.

“The pricing will be based on demand management and nothing else,” he said.

Farrell is prompting the San Francisco County Transportation Authority to study the possible toll, which may take up to two years, said Senior Transportation Planner Andrew Heidel. He and Farrell both emphasized that creating a toll and reserving a time to drive down Lombard Street is not about raising revenue, but is a proven means of better regulating traffic.

The study would further refine how a Lombard Street toll might work. Heidel said a reservation system might involve reserving visiting times by registering a license plate or a FasTrak account online.

Cameras and other technology similar to that used on the Golden Gate Bridge — to snapshot license plates for toll-payment — would be installed at the top of the crooked street, Heidel said.

Time to visit Lombard Street between Hyde and Leavenworth streets would be offered in 30- to 60-minute increments. The street can handle about 220 vehicles per hour, according to a draft report on the proposal written by the transportation authority.

Once Lombard Street’s vehicle limit has been reached, Heidel said, drivers may be directed to come at a different time.

“Much like going to Alcatraz, the boat is full,” he said.

The study also will look at a bevy of solutions to the pedestrian swarming problems and other traffic issues.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency parking control officers may be boosted, more San Francisco Police Department officers may be hired in their off-duty time as security and harsher enforcement may come to tour bus companies that violate parking laws in the neighborhood.

That congestion even damages the nearby cable cars. When cable cars are stalled in traffic too long, the grips that hold onto the cables create higher-than-normal friction, which causes the steel cords running underneath The City to fray — and potentially, melt into knots.

Easing the flood of pedestrians at Leavenworth Street is good news to the ears of Jim Hickman, a retired airline pilot who’s lived on the crooked street for 20 years.

“Sometimes if I turn right on Leavenworth, there’s 100 people standing in the middle of the street,” he said. When he tries to slowly drive through the crowd, “someone will get angry, they’ll flip you off, they’ll hit the car, they’ll get intimidating toward my wife, particularly.”

Farrell and Heidel said charging a toll on a public street will also require legislation at the state level, which state Sen. Scott Wiener said he would explore on San Francisco’s behalf.

“What has amazed me is the level of frustration and anger” from neighbors due to tourist crowding, Farrell said — that is, until he saw how drastically the number of visitors changed.

In 1999, transportation authority data shows the average daily traffic at 1,560 vehicles. But by 2015, that number ballooned to more than 2,700 vehicles a day. More than 2 million visitors now flock to Lombard Street’s crooked portion each year, twice the yearly visitors of Muir Woods, according to the transportation authority.

At the busiest times, this queue can stretch past the intersection of Lombard Street and Van Ness Avenue and can take more than 20 minutes to traverse by car.

“We’re not asking to not let tourists come here,” said Hickman, the Lombard Street neighbor.

“We just want some law and order, that’s all we’re asking.”

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