Driver fees could help combat gridlock

Downtown San Francisco will be mired in gridlock unless changes are made soon to alleviate automobile traffic — and the most effective method could be a long-discussed and controversial congestion-pricing scheme.

Unless private automobile traffic is reduced by 27 percent over the next three decades, congestion levels in The City will be unmanageable, with vehicles stuck at a standstill and pedestrians and cyclists prone to increasingly dangerous conditions, according to a new report by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, a local planning agency.

However, implementing congestion pricing could cut deeply into that 27 percent figure: The report pegged the number at 10 to 15 percent. It also would generate tens of millions of dollars for other transit needs.

Reaching the total reduction — which would still leave the downtown and South of Market areas “saturated” with traffic — will require a number of different initiatives, according to Tilly Chang, deputy planning director with the authority.

The authority has recommended adding more transit-only lanes in SoMa, particularly on key north-south corridors such as Seventh and Eighth streets. Installing bike paths, widening sidewalks and adding high-occupancy vehicle lanes to freeway on-ramps also could significantly cut back on congestion. And there’s the possibility of designating streets strictly for transit, biking or walking.

“It’s time to really plan proactively to avoid gridlock,” Chang said. “If the growth anticipated in the region happens, we’ll be facing massive delays and really unsafe conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, has been working with the authority on the circulation study. Spokesman Paul Rose said the agency is interested in exploring some of the ideas put forth in the authority’s report.

Measures such as increasing the use of employee shuttles can reduce congestion levels by about 1 to 3 percent in downtown San Francisco and an increase in car-sharing could lower traffic by another 3 to 5 percent.

A 2010 report by the authority found that charging a $3 fee for motorists entering the northeast section of San Francisco would generate $60 million to $80 million a year, which could then be invested into transportation improvements. Chang said the authority is waiting on direction from local policymakers on whether to continue exploring that option. Right now, there are no immediate plans to move forward with congestion pricing, she said.

A new nonprofit organization called the Business Council on Climate Change was formed to address issues of congestion and carbon emissions reduction in San Francisco.

While the group has met with the authority about some of its recommendations, it has not taken an official stance on the proposals, said Melissa Capria, the organization’s interim executive director.

Business groups such as the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the Building Owners and Management Association came out against the congestion-pricing plan.

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