Thursday, 3 February 2011

San Francisco's other congestion pricing plan

The proposals for a cordon pricing scheme for San Francisco have now been widely distributed and are under consultation.  It has been reported on this blog here.  Yet, in parallel to this has been progress to reform the tolls on the Bay Area bridges in several ways that effectively also reduce congestion.  None of this is a co-ordinated plan, but the impact will be complementary.

Bay Bridge congestion pricing
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge has a toll collected westbound only which is used to pay for maintenance of the bridge, the major seismic upgrade work now underway and to subsidise public transit services parallel to the bridge.  The tolls are collected with manual toll booths and Fastrak tag and beacon activated toll booths.   With tight budgets, it was decided that more revenue was needed to support the seismic retrofit project.    It was decided that for the Bay Bridge, this would mean the introduction of congestion pricing from July 2010.   A US$2 higher toll is charged between 5am and 10am and from 3pm to 7pm on weekdays (it is US$4 other times on weekdays, yet US$5 on weekends).  Rates are higher for trucks, and high occupancy (3+) vehicles have a 50% discount.  The results of this have been positive, with a reported 15% reduction in delays, although another report compares the intended reduction in traffic (which is not the same thing) of at least 20% with an actual 11% reduction.  It is important to note that it is quite plausible to have an 11% traffic reduction reducing delays by a far higher margin.

Still, it appears to have been a success.

Golden Gate Bridge to go all electronic

It isn't purely a price related change, but the announcement that the Golden Gate Bridge is to be converted to full electronic tolling in 2012 is partly about reducing congestion and partly about reducing operating costs.  Hopefully it means fully electronic free flow tolling ala Route 407 Toronto, Citylink Melbourne, so that traffic need not slow down, although TollRoadsNews reports " it will remain for the time being a lane-based - rather than an open road (ORT) - toll system. Being lane-based and with the heritage of old islands and booths remaining, travel through the toll point will probably be signed for 15mph."  This would be very disappointing.  There is no need for such a dated approach to electronic tolling in 2011.  Nevertheless, it will be positive and hopefully a prelude to considering congestion pricing on this bridge as well, which has been mooted for some years.

San Mateo and Dumbarton Bridges

The San Mateo County Times is reporting that there is now a push to introduce congestion pricing on the San Mateo and Dumbarton Bridges in San Mateo County, south of San Francisco city.  It is only being floated by officials, notably Rich Napier, executive director of the county's congestion management agency.   Congestion is not so severe on either of these crossings, but as you can see from the map to the right, it would be a logical step in managing congestion on key routes in the county.

Conclusion

The cordon proposal for San Francisco may or may not proceed, but in the meantime a combination of more efficient pricing and fully electronic free flow tolls will show how modern toll technology and targeted pricing can enhance the value of the roads tolled.   Congestion pricing will come one way or another, and it is economically rational and beneficial (and environmentally beneficial) to price the crossings to optimise utilisation, and to abolish manual toll collection.

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