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Originally published Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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San Francisco considers plan to charge drivers

Following the lead of cities such as London and Singapore, officials in San Francisco are considering a plan to ease traffic by charging drivers a fee upon entering notoriously clogged sections of the city.

The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Following the lead of cities such as London and Singapore, officials in San Francisco are considering a plan to ease traffic by charging drivers a fee upon entering notoriously clogged sections of the city.

Using $1 million in federal funds, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority is studying various "congestion-pricing" options. If approved, such pricing would make San Francisco the first U.S. city to charge cars a fee to enter certain neighborhoods at certain times.

"I want a San Francisco that is far less congested and far easier to navigate," said a city supervisor, Jake McGoldrick, who has shepherded congestion-pricing proposals and is leaving office this week because of term limits.

Congestion pricing generally intends to nudge drivers out of their vehicles and onto buses, subways and bicycles by pushing up the cost of driving into certain parts of a city during peak commuter hours. The fees help generate money to improve public transportation.

In 2003, London began charging drivers to enter the central part of the city; Singapore and Stockholm, Sweden, also have such fees. Last year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg advocated a proposal to charge drivers $8 upon entering a heavily trafficked part of Manhattan, but the plan died in the state Assembly.

McGoldrick said he had been sold on the plan since a 2005 meeting with the man he called "Mr. Congestion Management": a former London mayor, Ken Livingstone.

Americans have "a very parochial mind-set" about driving, said McGoldrick, whose wife is English.

"It's hard for people to envision anything else because this is such a car culture."

Such a plan would not come quickly, even in San Francisco, which has one of the most aggressive recycling programs in the country and has banned the use of plastic bags in supermarkets.

In December, the county transportation authority held two public meetings on the issue, although final study results are not expected until late this year.

"You cannot do anything in San Francisco without soliciting public comment early and often," said the authority's executive director, Jose Luis Moscovich, who added that he did not anticipate a decision on a congestion fee for several years.

The plan faces opponents in the city's business community. On Dec. 22, the president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Steve Falk, wrote in an op-ed article in The San Francisco Chronicle that such tolls amount to a "stealth tax." The headline on the article was "San Francisco Is Not London."

The economic downturn also has prompted caution. During his second inaugural address a year ago, the city's mayor, Gavin Newsom, called congestion pricing "the single greatest step we can take to protect our environment and improve our quality of life."

Last week, however, the mayor's office offered a more tepid endorsement. "The devil is in the details," said Nathan Ballard, a spokesman. While Newsom supports congestion management, Ballard said, "Given the challenging economic times, we would hate to impose too heavy a burden on commuters."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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