Revisiting the Los Angeles Congestion Pricing Plan: Good Idea After All?
In a side conversation a few days ago, Emerald City's Siel -- a fellow Angeleno -- took me to task for summarily dismissing the potential merits of the recently proposed congestion pricing scheme. She helpfully pointed me to a column penned by her friend, Damien Newton, who makes a convincing argument in favor of HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes. His spirited defense rests on two central points: First, the pricing structure of the HOT lanes has not yet been hammered out -- so people like me should stop belaboring the equity issue for now -- and, secondly, this scheme should help expand and improve the MTA's services. He writes:
"Once the schedule's nailed down, it very well could be that cars with more than one passenger will be paying a very reduced rate and cars with three or more people driving free. It could also be that cars with two or more passengers will be able to access the HOT lane in non-peak hour periods for free, but have to pay a small fee during peak hours. The truth is, carpoolers probably won’t be seeing much, if any, of a change in the cost of their commute."He goes on to slam the "class warfare" critique articulated by some mainstream writers as a "red herring," claiming (rightly) that few of the working poor probably commute in the HOV (high-occupancy vehicle, or carpool) lanes. Even for those that do, he argues, wouldn't public transit provide them with a "more cost-effective" alternative to "owning a car and paying for gas and insurance every month."
Citing a government-led study, he says that op-ed writers and other critics of the scheme should just let voters decide -- and, if this survey is any indication, people of all income levels clearly support converting HOV lanes to HOT lanes.
Another editorial penned by Roger Snoble and Doug Failing, the Metro's CEO and director of a Caltrans office, respectively, also (unsurprisingly) comes out in favor of the $213 million plan. While I'd still quibble with their suggestion that implementing the scheme would "squeeze a lot more capacity out of our congested freeways" -- after all, there is already little unused capacity now so converting the lanes probably won't free up much more -- their economic rationale seems fair:
Building new freeways, or even expanding existing ones, is extremely difficult. The region is so built up, and the environmental and funding hurdles so onerous, it would be decades before any construction was complete. That's why Metro and Caltrans sought a federal grant to test congestion-reduction pricing on the San Bernardino Freeway between downtown and El Monte and the Foothill Freeway from Duarte to Pasadena, and on the transit way in the center of the Harbor Freeway if there's funding left over. The demonstration project could be in place by the end of 2010.
Carpool lanes on these freeways would be converted into toll lanes where optimum speeds of 45 to 50 mph would be guaranteed by variable pricing. Although our tolls haven't been set, in other U.S. cities they have ranged from 50 cents to $10 a trip. However, freeway express buses and vanpools would not be charged a toll, and Metro and Caltrans are also considering giving regular public transit users toll lane credits to use on those occasions when they have to drive.
Moreover, drivers would be charged less during off-peak hours than at rush hours, with the expectation that many people will then change their commuting behavior to take advantage of lower rates or beefed-up ride-share programs. Vehicles in the general-purpose lanes would pay nothing.
Much will depend, of course, on how the plan, if it is approved, becomes implemented -- whether all those extra revenues fund enough new Metro projects to make a difference to commuters, for example. Though I may not yet be fully on-board with the plan, I certainly recognize that it has a lot of merit -- and, if done right, could do a lot of good for L.A.'s clogged freeways.
Image courtesy of Burning Image via flickr