The concept of congestion pricing as a way to limit the impact of automobile traffic in cities is not necessarily absurd, but has a number of significant challenges.
The city of San Francisco has discussed the possibility of congestion pricing since 2004 and has had difficulty in progressing far because of a number of legitimate concerns about its fairness, practicality and cost. Most recently, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority has outlined several options for charging a toll of up to $6 to enter/leave the city at the southern gateway with San Mateo County at Highway 101 and Interstate 280 and two separate options for the financial district.
The idea is that the amount of cars in the city disrupts the quality of life of its residents and one way to diminish that impact would be to create a disincentive for those coming into the city from outside its borders. It could generate up to $80 million a year and the earliest the city could set up the pricing system would be 2015.
One argument states that outsiders should pay for use of the city’s roads and the impact of their automobile on its residents. However, most people who enter the city are doing so to spend some money on either entertainment or services and the tax revenue generated from the visit should more than pay for the impact. Besides, people who live in a city should know that a city is usually congested. An alternative would be to move to the country.
Another argument is that creating a financial disincentive for driving will force more visitors onto public transit. That is fine in theory, if most visits were to be near the Fourth and King streets northern terminus for Caltrain or near the BART stations on Market Street. However, they are not. And to ask people to find a way to transfer to the MUNI system to get their final destination within the city is akin to cruel and unusual punishment. Anyone who has spent time on MUNI streetcars or buses knows there is a lack of reliability and capacity. Lamentably, San Francisco is not New York, with a highly efficient and reasonably priced subway system that will deliver most people adequately close to their destination. Although it is relatively small for a city, San Francisco is not the equivalent of a European village where it is fairly easy to park on the outside of the city walls and walk in. What if someone has a doctor’s appointment in the Fillmore District or wants to visit the Legion of Honor in the Richmond District? That is no small task by public transit, particularly for the aged or disabled.
Charging a fee at the city’s major entry points to the south is unfair to residents of San Mateo County who work in the city and could create a burden for those who live in South San Francisco and Daly City since traffic will be forced onto surface streets. While San Francisco officials contend this is a way to relieve traffic congestion and improve quality of life for their residents, it is also a way to generate revenue from residents of a neighboring county. We all benefit from having a city of San Francisco’s caliber in the area, but the notion should be a two-way street. San Mateo County residents provide a significant amount of workers and visitors that benefit the city and should not be taxed for traveling there when public transit options through the city are inadequate.
The city of San Francisco has a history of making decisions that negatively impact San Mateo County — whether it be about its jail in San Bruno, its airport or its water delivery system. Let this not be another in that series.
A San Francisco Transportation Authority Board meeting on the Mobility, Access and Pricing Study is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 14, Room 250 in San Francisco City Hall. For more information on the congestion pricing plan (including ways to contact the authority) visit http://www.sfcta.org/content/view/302/148/.