L.A. Should Seize Opportunity and Federal Funds to Ease Congestion

Toll road plan a good start to reducing traffic

The federal government has offered Los Angeles $213.6 million to help ease the region’s infamous traffic congestion. Take the money. The region’s transportation system is clogged and it is only going to get significantly worse without major changes.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s long-term plan does a lot of good things. But it also points out a very harsh reality: Between now and 2030, L.A. will spend $152 billion – with a “b” – on transportation, yet the travel speeds on our freeways will actually fall by an average of 14 miles per hour during that span. Translation: Our traffic jams will be worse than they are today – after spending $152 billion.

Rising congestion is quite simply the result of the growing gap between supply and demand for roadway capacity. There are more cars on our roads, many driving longer distances, but we are not adding the road capacity needed to keep pace.

Metro’s long-range plan proposes spending about 33 percent of its funds on the roadway system, which carries more than 95 percent of the travel in L.A. County. This will ensure rapidly declining mobility for the overwhelming majority of travelers in the county. In no other walk of life would you find a business that would dedicate just 33 percent of its resources to service 95 percent of its customer demand.

There are a lot of incentives and pressures for Metro’s plan to underinvest in roads, but the $213 million federal Urban Partnership Program grant is a chance to turn the plan around.

For the last seven years, most new highway capacity added in Los Angeles County came in the form of carpool lanes. But as professor Pravin Varaiya and his colleagues at UC Berkeley found, carpool lanes actually make things worse. Their study found high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes cause “a net increase in overall congestion delay. HOV actuation does not significantly increase person throughput.”

Yet, most of the money set to be spent on L.A.’s roads over the next two decades would curiously go to carpool lanes. That’s why this federal grant is so important.

The bulk of the federal money would be used to convert carpool lanes on portions of the 10, 210, 710, 605, 110 and 60 freeways into toll lanes. Tolls on the lanes would be variably priced, adjusting during the day in order to ensure the lanes are always free flowing at 55 miles per hour. This means tolls would be highest during morning and evening rush hours, and much lower at off-peak times.

It also means you wouldn’t have to guess how bad traffic would be on a day you really need to get somewhere on time because you’d have the option of getting into a toll lane guaranteed to be moving at the maximum speed limit. Emergency vehicles and buses would be able to use the lanes and avoid congestion. With buses freed from traffic, transit would offer riders a faster, more reliable commute – perhaps luring more people out of their cars.

Real carpools and vanpools could still use the lanes for free or pay a reduced toll, but would never have to worry about congestion. It’s a win-win for all commuters and workers. And it could be even better if this was the start of a plan to build a network of toll lanes connecting all of the Los Angeles region’s highways. This network would ensure that drivers, buses and emergency vehicles always have a congestion-free alternative to today’s gridlock.

Similar lanes in Orange County and San Diego have been enormously successful. Orange County’s 91 Express Lanes represent just one-third of that highway’s lanes but carry half of all traffic during rush hour because they are moving so much faster.

The plan to convert carpool lanes into toll lanes has the bipartisan support of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Other leaders and transportation officials should follow suit.

Look at our roads today. The status quo is failing miserably. Transportation planners admit their long-range plans will only make congestion get worse. It’s time for a fresh approach and this federal grant is the first step.