S.F. panel touts toll to tame traffic

Although neither a price nor an area have been determined for a downtown toll on motorists, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority is convinced a price tag on downtown driving will reduce gridlock and boost public-transit ridership.

Since last year, transportation officials have been studying the feasibility of levying a user fee to drive in the Financial District and the South of Market neighborhoods — areas that experience heavy congestion from commuters accessing the Bay Bridge and U.S. Highway 101.

Implemented in London in 2003, a downtown toll, or congestion pricing, is a controversial idea being studied in numerous cities.

Supporters say it helps reduce greenhouse gases and congestion, and as a result, speeds up traffic and boosts transit reliability and ridership. Skeptics say a toll would discourage people from patronizing downtown businesses, restaurants and services.

A proposal to impose an $8 toll on clogged streets in Manhattan was knocked down earlier this month by New York state legislators, but has since been revived. A newly formed commission will now study how to implement the overall toll plan.

Locally, there are about one million vehicle trips each day to and from the downtown and South of Market areas, according to the Transportation Authority, and congestion is predicted to get worse.

San Francisco’s population is projected to grow by 15 percent and the Bay Area population by 20 percent in the next two decades.

Based on other models, including those in London, Singapore, Stockholm and Rome, congestion pricing has reduced traffic volumes and delays by 13 percent to 26 percent, said Zabe Bent, a senior transportation planner with the authority, during a presentation Thursday at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research association, a local think tank. It has also generated between $54 million and $193 million in revenues.

The study, which is about one-third complete, is exploring what rates should be charged and how the charge might be collected. The study is focusing on the area bordered by Townsend Street in the south, Van Ness Avenue in the west, Broadway Avenue in the north and the Embarcadero in the east, although researchers are quick to say they have not yet recommended a pricing area.

Officials at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce are not convinced a downtown toll would produce so many benefits. They say San Francisco already has a successful balance of transportation uses and has taken a proactive approach to support drivers and transit riders.

“There’s no doubt the Bay Area has a congestion issue,” chamber Vice President Jim Lazarus said. “But by and large, the streets of San Francisco do not have the congestion of Manhattan or London.”

Lazarus said San Francisco was the first city in the nation to build a downtown public parking garage before World War II. “That’s why our Union Square shopping area has been as vibrant as it has. We have never had a dead or dying downtown.”

The City’s traffic

With rapid population growth in the Bay Area expected in the next two decades, officials are reviewing a plan to reduce congestion and improve transit reliability.

» 32: Average Bay Area vehicle trip in minutes

» 17: Number of minutes spent in traffic during average Bay Area trip

» 27%: Bay Area urban congestion in downtown and SoMa

» 1 million: Total vehicle trips to and from downtown and SoMa in 2005

» 9% to 35%: Percentage by which public transit is slower than vehicle traffic

In cities with downtown tolls:

» 20% to 39%: Increase in traffic speeds

» 5% to 18%: Increase in transit reliability and ridership

» 15% to 20%: Decrease in greenhouse gases caused by traffic

» 9%: Decrease in traffic-related pedestrian injuries

– Source: San Francisco County Transportation Authority


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