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Transportation and Mobility

Where (And Why) LA Metro Is Exploring 'Congestion Pricing' (AKA Making You Pay To Use Certain Roads)

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Los Angeles Metro officials are looking to launch congestion pricing in the region, including on the 110 Freeway in downtown L.A., which is pictured here from February 2020. (Aaron Mendelson / LAist)
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Traffic is the worst.

But what can we do about it? Adding more freeway lanes didn't help. Buses get stuck on the same roads as cars. Elon's car-ferrying tunnels aren't coming anytime soon. The impacts of a devastating pandemic emptied the roads for a while, but that wasn't a solution.

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When it comes down to it, L.A. County's crippling congestion stems from the basic economics of supply and demand.

In this case, the demand is getting in your car and driving where you need to go using local freeways. The supply is the space we have to drive on those freeways. Crawling in traffic is the price we pay for all driving the same routes at the same time.

So L.A. Metro is exploring congestion pricing, which aims to reduce demand by charging people to drive on certain roadways or zones at certain times.

The agency launched its study in 2019 and is now exploring four concepts to implement congestion pricing in specific high-traffic corridors or geographical areas.

  1. Santa Monica Mountains Corridor - This would include freeways and other roadways that pass through the Santa Monica Mountains from the 405 Freeway to the 5 Freeway. That includes the dreaded Sepulveda Pass. A variant of this concept would narrow the corridor to the 101 and 5 freeways.
  2. Downtown L.A. Freeways Corridor - This would mean congestion pricing on the 110, 10 and 101 freeways that converge in downtown L.A.
  3. Downtown L.A. Cordon - This option is based on the center of downtown L.A. as a geographical area, not the roadways. Drivers would be charged for crossing a specific boundary.
  4. 10 Freeway Corridor - This would implement congestion pricing for the 10 Freeway and other arterial roadways between Santa Monica and downtown L.A.

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One of the four concepts Metro is studying to launch a congestion pricing pilot.(Courtesy L.A. Metro)
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Tham Nguyen, project manager for the study, said one challenge is selling the concept of charging drivers to use high-demand roads in car-centric L.A.

"People think that L.A. is unique and the (traffic) problems of L.A. are very unique to our region," she said. "People experience hyper congestion in a lot of places around the world and they've managed to find tools [for] it."

Joshua Schank is chief innovation officer for Metro's Office of Extraordinary Innovation, a department established by Metro CEO Phillip Washington in 2015 to study new transportation ideas, test them and implement them in L.A. County. (Washington is stepping down from his role later this year).

"One of the common misperceptions of pricing is that all of a sudden you have to pay to drive places," Schank said. "No, you have to pay to drive [at] the most congested times on the most congested roads, because everyone wants to go at those times."

One concern being voiced to Metro: how will congestion pricing affect low-income residents who rely on car travel for school, work or child care? Metro officials said they are examining that and other concerns and will work to promote equity so vulnerable populations don't face additional financial burdens.

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Nguyen also noted that the concepts are designed to charge for car travel while also creating other mobility options for residents -- like improved bus service, better bike infrastructure and carpooling incentives.

"That's why we really need to work with the communities who are going to be affected by pilot programs like this to figure out: What works for you and what would give you the right mix of alternatives to driving?" she said.

The study group's goal is to select one concept and bring it to Metro's board of directors by next spring. If the agency's leaders sign off, a pilot program is projected to launch in 2025.

Agency officials are holding a series of virtual meetings this month, starting this evening, to share the concepts and pitch the idea of congestion pricing. You can learn more and register to attend here.

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