Friday, December 5, 2008

Can San Francisco Transit Handle Congestion Pricing?

In a critique of a congestion pricing proposal for his city, San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius accuses congestion pricing advocates of backwards logic. He contends proponents of the proposed $3 fee for driving into the City by the Bay feel the it is necessary to get people to use the region's public transit network. However, he maintains that accessibility to transit rather than lifestyle is behind most people's decision to drive.
"Proponents say people in the Bay Area just won't use public transit unless you make them.

Really? Tell that to the commuters in the East Bay who would love to ride BART but can't find parking at the stations. Or the Caltrain passengers who find train cars packed to the gills."

Nevius complains that "the public transit we have isn't a good alternative." That seems ingenuous to this observer, writing from his chair on the other side of the continent. After all, San Francisco has the best public transit network on the West Coast, with Caltrain commuter trains, BART subways, MUNI light rail and its beloved cable cars.

I'll grant Nevius a point about inadequate capacity, but this is a chicken-and-egg question. If demand rises, so will capacity, in time. Of course, it will take money to bring about the latter, but that's what congestion pricing is for. It would provide two new revenue streams to support transit investment. The first is the fees generated by congestion pricing charges. The second is the federal aid promises to cities that implement these program.

New York City walked away from $350 million when its state legislature failed to pass a congestion pricing law for the Big Apple. That money could have helped keep transit fares there under control. Now, to keep fare hikes from climbing too much, New York is considering de facto congestion pricing in the form of new tolls on East and Harlem River bridges. Of course, now it won't get that big check from Uncle Sam.

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