Saturday, December 18, 2010

Congestion Pricing: Bad idea whose time hasn't come

The anti-car folks at Streetsblog naturally love the idea of congestion pricing. They try to strike a note of amused detachment in the opening paragraph in their otherwise objective account of what happened at the board of supervisors the other day:

The study analyzing numerous options for congestion pricing in San Francisco touched off such a political furor in San Mateo County, you’d have thought San Francisco was about to moat up and charge a fee for admission. Politicians and planners from Daly City and San Mateo spoke about the plan today as though they were jilted lovers getting a mandate from the beautiful city to their north without being allowed to get a word in edgewise.

But the final study from SFCTA on congestion pricing contained a proposed option to in effect "moat up" the border between San Mateo County and San Francisco in the form of a fee to enter our oh-so-special city. It was called the "Southern Gateway" option (page 24) and shows the seven roads entering SF from our Southern border as locations to monitor inbound traffic. There's no indication that the political leadership of San Mateo County was consulted about that idea when the report was being written.

Even our "progressive" board of supervisors saw that that particular proposal was untenable, but what about the rest of the options in the study?

Readers of this blog will recall that a few years ago the SF Chamber of Commerce published a public opinion poll that found that congestion pricing is unpopular in the city. One question cited London, Stockholm, Milan, and Singapore as precedent/justification for the idea---those foreigners are so sophisticated!---but those polled were unimpressed and opposed the idea anyway, 61% to 36%. When some specifics were provided---with boundaries from Divisadero to 18th Street---people liked the idea even less, 72% to 25%.

The city has now reduced the proposed toll area to Laguna Street on the West and 18th Street on the South, but that makes more sense only because it's a smaller area. Laguna is one block off the chronically congested Octavia Boulevard, which now funnels freeway traffic onto Fell Street and off Oak Street. Since Octavia is inside the proposed fee area, does that mean that all those motorists will be billed for taking that route to and from Western San Francisco?

Streetsblog cites what critics on the board said:

Michaela Alioto-Pier, Carmen Chu, and Bevan Dufty, the three dissenting supervisors who voted against even studying pricing further, all said the current economic situation made them reluctant to add a further fee for driving into certain parts of the city. Chu noted the city has numerous other options for pricing, including better parking management, such as the SFPark trial and other scenarios. 

Alioto-Pier was particularly insistent in her opposition to the study, saying until the ramification of the new fee and tax measure Proposition 26 was clearer, she didn’t think the city should move ahead with spending money on something that might never pass. She also said the impact to small businesses would be too great to bear and that the current study didn’t demonstrate those impacts sufficiently. Of the southern gateway, she said the lack of regional support was disconcerting and that pricing sent the wrong signal to people outside the zone. “To me it looks like a fee to enter San Francisco,” she said.

That's exactly what it is, and she's right to cite Proposition 26 as a concern, since congestion pricing fees are unlikely to get the required 2/3 vote in San Francisco.

The supervisors voting to continue studying the unpopular idea seem to think that money they hope to get in federal funding---up to $2 million, according to the Chronicle---to keep the dumb proposal alive isn't real money as long as it doesn't come out of the city's budget. On the other hand, the Streetsblog story tells us that the city will still have to put up $400,000 in matching funds to keep hope alive for congestion pricing and the anti-car movement in the city.

Interesting to note too that Supervisor Dufty, a candidate for mayor, voted against congestion pricing. He surely understands that the idea won't be popular citywide even if supervisors elected by district think it's a good idea. All the candidates for mayor will now have to come out for or against congestion pricing, which should tell us who the serious candidates are, since opposing congestion pricing will anger the anti-car movement, especially the politically powerful Bicycle Coalition!

The congestion pricing report tells us that most of the motorists that will be hit by the fee actually live in San Francisco:

Despite perceptions that regional travelers contribute the most to congestion in the greater downtown area, in fact San Francisco travelers account for the greatest number of trips, followed by East Bay travelers. Of the 120,000 automobile vehicle trips in the p.m. peak, intra-San Francisco trips account for more than 70 percent of this travel demand. This finding belies the common perception that downtown traffic congestion is caused primarily by regional travelers (page 11).

If you only read Streetsblog, BikeNopa, or the SF Bicycle Coalition's website, you might think that cars are becoming obsolete in San Francisco. In fact the DMV tells us there are 381,737 cars registered in the city, along with 59,751 trucks, and 20,339 motorcycles/motorbikes for a total of 461,827 motor vehicles registered in SF, which makes it even more unlikely that city voters will approve a scheme that taxes them when they drive downtown in their own city.

The clunky prose of the final report doesn't inspire confidence in the underlying intellectual quality of the city's congestion pricing proposal: we get "non-motorized travel activity" instead of "walking and cycling"; and "people cannot reliably access their desired destinations," instead of "people can't get where they want to go"; "currently" is used instead of "now"; "prior" instead of "before," and "subsequent" for "after"; "utilized" instead of "used"; "public outreach activities" when "public outreach" would do; "driving activity" and "business activity" when "driving" and "business" would have done the job on their own.

Maybe the city can use some of the federal grant money to buy everyone on the "Study Team" a copy of Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" before they write any more reports. On second thought, maybe Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language," would be more helpful.

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