City Continues to Mull Over Congestion Pricing

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The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) has extended its timeline to develop a Downtown congestion pricing scheme, giving Southside residents and businesses more time to consider the idea. 

SFCTA wants to use congestion pricing to reduce traffic levels Downtown, thereby speeding circulation and untangling gridlock. Vehicles would be charged a fee to drive on certain streets, including in Mission Bay and South-of-Market. 

Two areas are being considered for congestion pricing. The smaller one is bounded to the east by Broadway Street, the north by Van Ness Avenue, Fulton Street, Laguna Street, 14th Street, Division Street, and Seventh Street, and west by Mission Creek. The larger contains the same zone, expanded to the Bay on the east, to the north by the same series of streets, the west by Mariposa Street. 

If the Board of Supervisors proceeds with congestion pricing, SFCTA could implement a scheme within five years of completing a study. The agency decided to take more time to evaluate potential pricing approaches because of pandemic-related uncertainties, said Rachel Hiatt, SFCTA acting deputy director. 

“We hope to restart public outreach and complete the study in 2022. The total budget for the study is $2.8 million. Money for the study will still be available from the two-year budget cycle,” said Hiatt. 

“We’re seeing single occupancy vehicle use come back faster than public transit,” she continued. “Folks are reluctant to get on crowded buses and trains. In some areas, delays slow cars down. Traffic is at 90 to 100 percent of what we saw before the pandemic. In other spots, traffic levels are lower than in 2019. We think this is due to companies’ work-from-home policies. In spring 2022, we will revise our growth projections to reflect slowdown and population loss during the pandemic.” 

Though fewer workers are commuting Downtown and SoMa, according to U.S. Census data, which was collected pre-pandemic, roughly 90,000 more people lived in San Francisco in 2020 than in 2010. Populations rose in Mission Bay, the Financial District, South Beach, SoMa, Dogpatch, and Potrero Hill. Mission Bay had the greatest increase, gaining 92 percent of its former population, while FiDi/SoBe swelled by 61 percent, SoMa by 43 percent. 

SFCTA estimates that roughly 60 percent of households in a congestion pricing zone would be eligible for fee exemptions or discounts.

“We have very ambitious equity goals for the study. We are recommending a fee discount structure that is much more extensive than anywhere else in the Bay Area,” said Hiatt. 

Singapore, Milan, and Stockholm have congestion pricing schemes. Beginning in 2010, Bay Bridge tolls increased from $5 to $7 during traditional peaks of 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays. 

J.R. Eppler, president of the Potrero Boosters, an association made up of Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, and Showplace Square residents, and a member of SFCTA’s policy advisory group on congestion pricing, said the approach could be a useful tool to reduce traffic.

“It could also have negative and disproportionate impacts on the southeastern neighborhoods. It matters as to how it’s applied and who loses as a result. The border of the zone needs to be drawn in a way that doesn’t severely affect Dogpatch and Potrero Hill,” said Eppler. “For example, if you make Mariposa Street the border, you will see more cars coming into Dogpatch to drop people off. Moving the border just one block could create or eliminate traffic and parking problems.” 

“I am also unhappy with the way that the proposed congestion pricing zone is oddly mapped,” said Katherine Doumani, Dogpatch Neighborhood Association (DNA) president. “It seems to cut into the heart of our community. I suggest that King Street be the proposed line rather than Mariposa Street. Mission Bay is not Downtown. Including it in a Downtown congestion pricing zone doesn’t make any sense.” 

Doumani said SFCTA should ask the San Francisco Giants, Golden State Warriors and University of California, San Francisco how they’ve managed traffic. 

“Before the pandemic, we thought there’d be ‘Carmageddon’ on game days. It didn’t happen because these organizations worked hard getting people not to drive. I’ve seen groups of people walking to get to games. SFCTA may want to work on replicating those efforts in other areas rather than impose a fee,” said Doumani. 

According to Keith Goldstein, Potrero Dogpatch Merchants Association president, small businesses largely oppose congestion pricing. 

“They want to recover from the pandemic first. They would like the City to focus on helping them do so before SFCTA puts a congestion pricing plan in place,” said Goldstein.

Goldstein said once the economy has settled down there could be benefits to the approach. 

“There is a congestion pricing zone in London. Two of my brothers have small businesses there. After London started imposing congestion pricing fees, I saw delivery vehicles were able to get around town quicker. Streets were less congested. There was an increase in productivity,” said Goldstein.

“A fee would be another blow to the Downtown business community,” said Michael Freeman, a Mission Bay Citizens Advisory Committee member.  “Right now, office buildings have few people in them. Even then, workers sometimes only come in two to three times a week. They feel unsafe because of COVID-19. The fees could cause a further drop-off in downtown parking tax, which is a big source of revenue for the City, as well as property values, sales, and property taxes.” 

“So much is in flux right now,” said Wendy Silvani, principal at Silvani Transportation Consulting, an Oakland-based company that manages the Mission Bay Shuttle. “It would not be prudent to develop a congestion pricing plan with this level of uncertainty. There are so many other measures that may be more effective. These would include expanding bus, pedestrian and bicycle facilities, making Muni and BART safer, and adding pedestrian lanes to roads. If you had more Muni buses running more direct routes and more frequently, you would also cut the number of cars on the road. Changing work patterns, hours, and shifts will likely improve both congestion and commute times.”  

Lyft supports comprehensive congestion pricing as one of the best ways to reduce traffic and congestion in cities. Lyft wants any pricing scheme to be applied to all vehicles, to incentivize high occupancy trips, with associated revenues invested in the public transportation network, including Bay Area Rapid Transit and ferry service. 

Uber also favors congestion pricing, noting that bottlenecks aren’t good for Uber drivers or  riders. It similarly prefers that funds raised from any plan be reinvested in improved public transportation services.  

Evan Goldin, a SoMa resident and SoMa Citizens Advisory Commission member, supports congestion pricing.

“I live right next to the Bay Bridge on-ramp. Every day, I see that people are driving more than before the pandemic. They’re also driving at much higher speeds in our neighborhood. Congestion has returned with a vengeance,” said Goldin. “I walk by coffee shops, restaurants, and small businesses all trying to survive and many already gone. I’d like to see more foot traffic in our neighborhood. It would be good to see fewer people using SoMa as San Francisco’s highway onramps and cut-through neighborhoods. We can accommodate more people with bikes, rideshare vehicles, and buses. Congestion pricing will ensure there will be fewer single-occupancy vehicles and more alternative modes of transportation Downtown.”

“I support congestion pricing, partly because I believe it will work and partly because it could be a way to raise revenue to provide more bus service and rail service,” said Peter Belden, a San Francisco Bike Coalition member who co-chairs the Potrero Boosters and DNA’s joint Livable Streets Committee, a group focused on creating safe streets. “The money could make public transportation more equitable.” 

“As part of our goals for Vision Zero SF, a City policy to bring the number of traffic-related deaths and severe injuries to zero, we’re looking to reduce the number of vehicles on our already-congested streets,” said Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF, a nonprofit that focuses on pedestrian safety. “Walk SF wants to see SFCTA continue the study. Now is not the time to hit the pause button.” 

Medeiros said Walk SF’s outreach suggests that certain neighborhoods, such as the Tenderloin and SoMa, are more open to the concept of congestion pricing than others that have poor access to transit, like Bayview-Hunters Point.

“We’re a big fan of improving public transportation as a top priority for investment. Giving people options of how to get around San Francisco, through reliable transit, is also a part of improving conditions for those who have been economically and historically disadvantaged for years,” said Medeiros.