Is It Possible to Have a Civilized, Intelligent Conversation About Congestion Pricing? Or Are We All Big Jerks?

Between the SF County Transit Authority’s mediocre PR of a mere study on a potential way of managing traffic, the inflammatory coverage provided by local media, screaming commenters on various news sites, and a chorus of BS from politicians around the Bay Area, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s possible to talk about anything of substance anymore.
So let’s get a few things out of the way first about so-called “congestion traffic charges”. There is currently no plan for “tolls” in and out of San Francisco. Read that again, Peninsulans. THERE IS NO PLAN BEING VOTED ON BY THE SFCTA NOW TO ENACT “TOLLS” IN AND OUT OF SAN FRANCISCO. Period.
The only thing the SFCTA is doing is looking to study the issue. Which in San Franciscospeak means “study it to death with a million studies, issue lots of grants to consultants, and have no real policy for several years.” So calm the f*ck down.
The fact that San Mateo County’s “leaders” are already going to Defcon 1 over a mere study says a lot about how easy it is to get into office in Daly City, and how said leaders don’t really know much about what they’re talking about.
I have suggested in the past that any plan to charge drivers for driving on roads at peak times in San Francisco would be fraught with peril, if for no other reason than trying to implement a plan similar to what has been done in say, London, would be difficult because it would have to be based on certain assumptions about who drives where and when that would inevitably lead to some people getting genuinely, unintentionally, screwed. And if the hysterical reaction by the press and the politicians to the concept of a “study” is any guide, the ensuing cascade of bullsh*t will bury it, whether it’s a good idea or not.
Left out of any of this talk is the brutal truth that the Bay Area’s transit agencies do not connect very well with each other. Muni, for all its problems, does manage to connect the majority of places within the city to each other, even if that means a long ride or a million transfers.
SamTrans, however does not. If you live in San Francisco and work on the Peninsula (or vice versa) and you are not directly served by a SamTrans line or BART, getting between those two destinations is tough. (The exception being if you can take a Genentech/Google/Yahoo/Bauer bus).
SamTrans is generally looked down upon by San Mateo residents, the system is primarily oriented to shuttling people at rush hour, doesn’t have transfers, and you can live in parts of SMC and never see any form of transit (which isn’t an accident). SamTrans has also routinely rejected advice from the federal government that would make the system more efficient and serve more people. Try spending a week in the county without a car and you’ll start wishing you were on Muni again.
As an example of this disconnect, when I used to work in South San Francisco and was living in SF, the BART station in SSF hadn’t been finished yet. The only way to sort of get to work would have been Caltrain, but the stop was across the freeway. Worse, it didn’t run late and I often worked long hours. Thus I had no choice but to drive. No amount of financial pain would have “encouraged” me to switch because it wasn’t practical.
Also left out of the discussion is the fact that Caltrain is being de-funded as we speak, with the leader in said defunding being…San Mateo County, which started to withhold money from the system. Add in the standard “state stole money over the past several years from all transit agencies” disclaimer, and you start to realize that having only the “stick” of a congestion pricing scheme without the “carrot” of a functioning regional transit system won’t work.
It would be nice to think with so many smart people, and so many billionaires living around here, we could come up with a smart way to deal with these problems. Given the fact we’re about to give away the waterfront to a billionaire, we have city “leaders” up and down the Peninsula doing their best to compromise transportation (as they did in the 60s blocking BART), and so on, I’m not awaiting any brilliance from anyone, anytime soon.
UPDATE: Here’s an example from CBS Radio of the kind of dishonest reporting on this issue. The SFCTA did not “vote down” a toll plan on the southern border, because THERE WAS NO PLAN TO BEGIN WITH. All they did was vote down studying that specific idea – the SFCTA will continue to studystudystudy the idea, but there’s no real plan to actually implement ANYTHING now, and likely will never be for many years. Even if such an idea got to the policy stage, it’d have to be voted on and get a 2/3rds vote as it’s likely to be considered a “fee.”
Once again the dishonest reporting leads to hysterical reactions that reinforce stereotypes, and an honest discussion about traffic, transit and regional challenges is lost to the screamers and the fools that republish said screaming.
UPDATE 2: Possibly the most misleading story yet comes from the Mercury News, which is so full of half truths and basically acts as a PR sheet for ambitious politicians in a term limited world. I find it fascinating people actually get paid to write this kind of nonsense.

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2 Responses to Is It Possible to Have a Civilized, Intelligent Conversation About Congestion Pricing? Or Are We All Big Jerks?

  1. Scott says:

    I don’t think the media overreacted to the story; people in the suburbs are worried about their commute getting a lot more expensive. In San Francisco, which has been my home for 25 years, “studies” have a way of becoming reality (think of changes to Octavia Street, bike lane improvements all over town, restrictions on Market Street traffic etc). Do you really think that a 30-minute newscast is going to give in-depth, nuanced attention to an issue like this? You expect too much from the media here. No one publishes anything in-depth and balanced (key word there – balanced).

  2. Al says:

    Actually, it’s funny – the downtown plan always made more sense to me (transit out here in the avenues is also pretty poor, unfortunately) and is, according to the SJMN, still on the table. So maybe this was some sort of masterful deception– bring up two plans, wait until everyone’s up in arms, then sacrifice one, leaving the other.

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