A few months ago New York City became the first U.S. City to adopt the idea of “congestion pricing” as a way to deal with the most overcrowded roads in Manhattan, the densest population center in North America. It is expected to raise $15 billion over time to help modernize the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (the MTA’s) outdated subway system, which is 90 years old—and where a majority of residents do not own cars.
Now this concept is being proposed for San Diego County, where the great majority of people do own cars.
For those who are new to the concept, “congestion pricing” aka “dynamic pricing” is the practice of charging cars for driving on the roads during peak traffic activity. It might be compared to charging electricity customers higher rates during peak power demands. The more you drive in areas that other drivers are choosing to drive in (or are forced to drive in by circumstances of work,) the more you will pay for it. In NYC, the city has discussed charging cars $12 to enter the most crowded parts of the city, $25 for trucks.
California is often the birthplace of new ideas that expand eastward to the rest of the country. This time it happened the other way around. The concept of “congestion pricing” as a new form of taxation has now arrived at California’s shores. It surfaced at a recent meeting of the San Diego Association of Governments, where it immediately became a source of much controversy, pitting smaller cities against the big gorilla in the room, the City of San Diego.
Based on SANDAG research there are two different types of dynamic pricing, Express Lanes/HOV Lanes, which is what San Diego has now. The other is what’s done in London and Manhattan, where they charge people in every single lane.
Several North County officials who served on the SANDAG board, led by 3rd District Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, tried to head the concept off and remove congestion pricing as a possible way to raise funds to pay for transportation improvements. Gaspar argued for taking congestion pricing “off the table.”
But SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata complained “By doing this you are taking an important tool, a very important tool, out of the tool box and you are putting your staff in an impossible situation to meeting the requirements.”
SANDAG’s governance rules give weighted influence to the City of San Diego, so that, according to one member of the board, “All it takes is San Diego and Chula Vista voting together to get anything they want.” To, in other words, impose solutions on all the other cities in the county that may be unpopular there. Ikhrata won the argument and congestion pricing was retained as a possible tool in the future.
McNamara and several other North County mayors supported Gaspar’s motion.
The fact that congestion pricing is a concept whose time has come in New York City just contrasts how very different its situation compares to the sprawling expanse that is San Diego County, according to Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara.
“You are driving and suddenly you are on the road when it has way too much traffic. Suddenly you are riding in your own taxi cab. Unlike driving on Fastrack, you have no control over it,” McNamara says to illustrate that people on the highways are not there because they have a choice.
He identifies the real problem as coming up with the balance between the needs of motorists and the need to expand the mass transit network in the County to those who it could conceivably benefit.
The mayor calls the task “Herculean!” The original Herculean tasks in Greek myth were the 12 Labors of Hercules. Wherein the brawny demigod cleaned out a huge stable of horses by changing the course of a river, moving a couple of huge “pillars” to Gibraltar and defeating a giant bull. Hercules may have had it easy compared to transitioning to public transportation, says McNamara.
“We need to focus on a reasonable transition path to public transportation that relieves the congestion on the road. Alternatives that we propose to the county need to be reasonable and do-able. I don’t think that congested pricing is one that would be acceptable to the county,” says McNamara.
He urges SANDAG to start doing the analyses for what will be required to carry out Ikhrata’s so-called “bold new transportation vision” also known as the “Five Big Moves.”
While McNamara supports the “Five Big Moves,”—of congestion pricing he is less optimistic. “I don’t think it’s doable.” It actually works against the County and state’s overall goal of reducing greenhouse gases, he says. “People are going to say, ‘Wait a minute! I don’t have public transportation to get me to the house. I’m forced to ride on the road during the rush hour.’ It doesn’t make sense to have that option. I already pay my taxes. It’s hard for me to imagine it would be approved.”
What should really be discussed, he says, “is the transition plan that would get ten percent of the cars off the road, which would reduce greenhouse gases.”
Another aspect of “congestion pricing” is that for it to work cars must be required to have GPS transponders to track their whereabouts and pass that information on to the government, which would then charge them. “There is a little bit of Big Brother aspect to it,” says McNamara in a reference to George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” “This is where it gets to what kind of community you want to be in. If you move to Temecula for a nicer house but you still work in San Diego county, you don’t really have much more of an option.”
Reasonable people, he says, can sit down and come up with ways to reduce greenhouse gases. “Kristin Gaspar was trying to come up with a path that is reasonable and doable. You could say ‘I’m going to start charging $100 a day for parking.’ But would it fly with the members of the SANDAG board, many of whom represent cities? Would mayors go with this? I think they would want a more balanced approach.”
What makes the problem so “Herculean” is because “it’s part of a system of systems. Every decision affects other things,” he says. “The difference between New York City and us is that NYC has a fairly mature transportation system. Most people have public transportation that will get them where they want to go. In San Diego the public transportation system doesn’t get us where we want to go. That’s what makes it a Herculean task.”
It’s a task that is only just beginning. Hercules, call your office.