Paying For Privilege To Drive Into Any Big City: It's Coming

Commuters from south of San Francisco dodged a bullet this month when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors abandoned a proposal to charge $3 each way to people entering and leaving the city from the south. Local State legislator Jerry Hill threatened to sponsor legislation disallowing the move, and with that dark cloud over their heads, the supervisors relented. The plan would have raised $80 million annually for transportation projects. 

The proposal may be dead for now, but it is likely to be resurrected in the future. London already has such a fee and New York has come perilously close to adopting one. In all of these cases, the issue centers on unbalanced populations.

As a destination city, San Francisco's population swells during the day from 815,000 to as much as 1.5 million. Of this number, nearly 200,000 people commute to work, with the rest being tourists or other daytime visitors. Few cities in the U.S. swell so large, with New York, Washington, D.C. and Boston among the most prominent examples.

The problem with these day/night swings is that San Francisco must have enough emergency personnel, public transportation, streets and other infrastructure elements to meet the needs of 1.5 million daytime residents with a tax base built from a much smaller population. That, along with efforts to reduce congestion, is what led up to the tax proposal.

At its root, the supervisors proposed a user tax--use the roads into the city and you pay a fee. It's not much different than a fee for the bridges leading into the city. It's also not much different from the proliferation of toll roads throughout the state.

Equally important is the long overdue recognition that San Francisco is a hub for other nearby counties and their populations. As such, the services there should be considered in a regional context, something hard to do given the parochialism that permeates local government.

Nobody likes paying taxes or fees, yet we expect governments to provide basic services. Serious thought about regional cooperation may go a long way toward minimizing additional costs while distributing them fairly. Of course, that means surrendering some autonomy, and historically that hasn't gone over well. Whether we can continue to pay for such a luxury remains to be seen.


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