Congestion pricing revival: State bill would allow SF to charge cars for downtown entry

Drivers might soon need to pay to enter downtown San Francisco.

In a bid to tackle ever-worsening traffic on California roadways, including the Bay Area, and to boost use of public transit, new legislation would allow the creation of congestion pricing programs in the state.

Congestion pricing plans require drivers to pay a toll to enter specific areas, usually a downtown city center or dense urban core.

The concept has been pitched for San Francisco before and has often met fiery opposition. But at least one city lawmaker said that if the state bill passes, he will introduce legislation implementing it in The City.

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First introduced in mid-February, Assembly Bill 3059 is co-authored by Assemblymember Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, and state Sen. Scott Wiener. The bill is tentatively scheduled to be heard in committee for the first time March 19, according to state documents.

“Traffic congestion is depriving Californians of their time, money and health — we’ve run out of options and our 20th century transportation solutions simply won’t cut it anymore,” Bloom said in a statement.

The bill would remove legal barriers at the state level and allow local jurisdictions to pass their own congestion pricing pilot programs, called “Go Zones,” in four unnamed California cities. The bill says two pilots would be in Southern California and two in Northern California.

The Go Zones offer “innovative solutions to traffic congestion that also support more multimodal, reliable and integrated transportation systems,” Bloom said.

Existing law prohibits local entities from “imposing a tax, permit fee or other charge” in ways that would create congestion pricing programs, according to the bill text. Should the bill be approved, San Francisco would have the go-ahead to form its own congestion pricing pilot — and one city lawmaker is already prepared to move ahead.

“I’ve long been a proponent of congestion pricing as a way to change driving behavior and reduce traffic,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who also serves as board chair on the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

Vehicle collisions with pedestrians could be reduced by 5 percent citywide if San Francisco opted to charge drivers entering the downtown area a $3 fee, according to a 2011 study by the Department of Public Health. (Jessica Christian/2017 S.F. Examiner)

“While this won’t raise significant revenue toward our massive citywide transportation infrastructure and operations needs,” he added, “it’s an important tool to address vehicle gridlock in our transit-rich downtown core. I’m ready to sponsor a local ordinance to create the pilot, should this enabling bill pass.”

A study conducted by the Department of Public Health in 2011 found that charging drivers $3 to enter downtown could reduce collisions with pedestrians citywide by 5 percent, the San Francisco Examiner previously reported. Within downtown itself, collisions would decrease even further, by 9 percent, according to the study.

It’s unclear if congestion pricing will still be a hard sell in The City.

In 2016, San Franciscans were overwhelmingly against congestion pricing; 72 percent of those surveyed said they opposed such a scheme in the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce’s annual Dignity Health CityBeat Poll.

But much has changed in two years: More than ever, traffic congestion is the topic du jour in San Francisco among business owners, drivers and cyclists alike.

Traffic congestion and its contribution to traffic injuries vexes public health officials, and locals cast blame on the usual suspects: the Uber and Lyft drivers who swarm to lucrative San Francisco neighborhoods from across the Bay Area, the burgeoning construction across downtown, a booming regional population and a bustling economy.

Few of those factors may change anytime soon, however, which has prompted officials to call for novel solutions.

Wiener is among those who have changed their stance on congestion pricing. In 2014, as a city supervisor, he told the Examiner he opposed congestion pricing until The City “got back to the basics” of traffic enforcement, streets engineered for safety and bolstered public transit.

“This doesn’t force The City to adopt congestion pricing. It empowers The City to decide for itself,” Wiener said Wednesday.

But he still has some concerns. Wiener wants to see the congestion funding used for Muni and BART.

“I just want to make sure we’re not simply imposing a fee, that we’re also giving people better options to use public transportation,” he said.

He also wants to make sure there’s a relief function for low-income drivers, either through rebates or another function. That sort of exemption, among other details, would be crafted in a local law, like the one Peskin has pledged to craft.

The bill itself dictates few details, though it does contain some requirements: The local regulations would need to specify the duration of the congestion pricing demonstration pilot project and the amount of congestion pricing charges to be imposed.

SEE RELATED: SF lawmaker wants city tax for Uber, Lyft for November ballot

Collection and enforcement mechanisms would also need to be outlined by local authorities, and they would need an active transportation plan to implement transportation alternatives, among “other necessary and related matters,” according to the bill text.

Response to the bill is already dividing along expected lines, with transportation advocates in support and business groups voicing caution.

“Too often, in San Francisco, we try to tax our way out of problems [without providing] comprehensive solutions,” said Karin Flood, executive director of the Union Square Business Improvement District.

“We think that by throwing money at a problem we will get at a solution,” Flood added, “but this is a complex issue with multiple policy approaches and potential outcomes. So we should move forward with care.”

Ed Reiskin, director of transportation at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, told the Examiner that international cities like London and Stockholm have demonstrated congestion pricing can work to reduce the number of cars on the road.

Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said the booming number of cars in San Francisco “means more traffic, more dangerous streets and more air pollution.”

Wiedenmeier supported a possible fee to enter downtown and said “a congestion pricing pilot would allow dense California cities, like ours, to find the strategy that best fits our communities’ needs.”

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