Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters speaks to reporters about a federal grant that will fund a congestion pricing demonstration project in District 7. Behind her (L to R) are: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; Business, Transportation and Housing Agency Secretary Dale Bonner; Metro Board Chair Pam O Connor; Caltrans Director Will Kempton.

by  Judy Gish
Issue Date: 05/2008

Toll lanes will be tried on local freeways; numerous benefits are expected.

Two of Los Angeles County’s busiest freeways will soon become examples of one of the newest concepts in congestion management following a historic transportation agreement announced recently.

Several high-level government officials, including U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters; Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; Business, Transportation and Housing Agency Secretary Dale Bonner; Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; and California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) Director Will Kempton, announced the agreement at a press conference held on April 25 near the Harbor Freeway (I-110).

With a federal grant in the amount of $213.6 million, Caltrans and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) will begin a demonstration project to convert carpool lanes on the San Bernardino Freeway (I-10) El Monte Bus Lanes and a portion of the Foothill Freeway (I-210) to toll lanes as early as 2010. Pending financing availability, a portion of I-110 south of Downtown Los Angeles also will be converted.

The grant encourages increased use of  public transportation and also will be applied to improving the transit infrastructure, such as building more park and ride lots and purchasing 63 new buses for use in express lanes. Additionally, the carpool lanes will remain free to vehicles carrying three or more people.
Congestion pricing, as the strategy is called, involves charging for the use of a transportation facility, such as a carpool lane, based on the level of traffic congestion. Since higher congestion typically occurs during the morning and evening commute, costs would be highest during those times. The purpose of congestion pricing is to manage roadway capacity by changing commuting behavior and generating additional funds for more transit, vanpools and other transportation options to increase mobility.

Virtually everyone has encountered some form of congestion pricing, such as early bird dinners, off-peak air or hotel fares, and reduced rate phone calls on evenings and weekends. Charging tolls to travel on express lanes (also referred to as High Occupancy Toll, or HOT lanes) at peak travel times is the same idea.

One of the challenges to applying congestion pricing to transportation management is that California freeways have always been, well, free. Charging tolls has been criticized as creating so-called “Lexus lanes” that would be used only by the well-to-do. Not so, said District 7 Director Doug Failing. “Converting carpool lanes into toll lanes not only will wring a lot more capacity out of congested freeways in Los Angeles County but will benefit low and middle-income people and everyone else who has to buck traffic.”

According to the 2000 Census, 70 percent of Los Angeles County commuters drive alone to work, and only seven percent use transit. Nationwide, highway congestion in the largest U.S. cities has increased from 2.5 hours in 1982 to 7 hours in 2003. Without some sort of dramatic intervention, that figure will only continue to climb. Congestion pricing, according the U.S. Department of Transportation, reduces delays, increases the  predictability of trip times, improves transit speeds and the reliability of service, increases transit ridership, reduces fuel consumption and vehicle emissions, and increases revenues for funding transportation improvements.

“With the population continuing to grow, we’ve reached the tipping point where we have to try new approaches for handling traffic and toll lanes are worth testing to better manage our freeways for the benefit of all,” Failing said.

There are still several steps to complete before the demonstration project can be implemented. Environmental documents must be prepared, buses must be purchased, the freeway system must be modified, and the technology to assess tolls must be acquired. Additionally, agreements must be worked out with the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to provide enforcement.  “We have until December 31, 2010 to make these systems operational,” Failing said. “We can do that, but it’s going to take all of us working together to make that date.”