Support for Los Angeles’ Congestion Pricing Plan

The Los Angeles Times editorial page is smartly supporting the congestion pricing pilot program in the region:

Congestion pricing, though, imposes a user fee; only the people who use toll lanes pay the cost, and the people who use them tend to have higher incomes. It’s hard to imagine a fairer system.

Of course, what applies to most toll lanes and roads doesn’t apply to the L.A. demonstration project. Usually, these improvements are built by private companies, and the tolls are used to repay the cost of construction. Some argue that roads are a public resource and should be free for all, but that hardly applies when the resource is private and wouldn’t exist if not for the toll revenues. Yet L.A.’s toll lanes are being paid for by the federal government with taxpayer money. So shouldn’t rich and poor benefit equally?

In truth, low-income commuters stand to benefit a great deal from L.A.’s experiment. Only 25% of the project’s budget will be spent on developing the new toll lanes; the bulk of the money will pay for public-transit improvements, including the purchase of 57 new express buses traveling the affected routes.

It’s good to see the Times recognizing that HOT lanes are a good idea—and not simply “Lexus Lanes.” That conclusion is consistent with a UCLA/USC study last year that concluded that if California’s first high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes (on SR 91 in Orange County) had been funded by the local transportation sales tax (instead of by toll payments), the equity implications would have been very negative. That’s because sales taxes are even more regressive than gasoline taxes, and both of those taxes are more regressive than tolls (which you only pay if the mobility improvement is worth it to you).

Those who think they favor the interests of lower-income people by opposing HOT lanes forget one very important fact. The financial consequences of being late (whether to a job or to pick up your child from day care before late fees kick in) can often be more serious to a person of modest income than to the stereotypical Lexus driver. A working mother with two pre-schoolers in daycare may gladly pay a $5 toll to avoid a $20 late fee, while the Lexus driver may see the $20 late fee as pocket change.

Today, the vast majority of commuters have no choice when the roads they need to use are horribly congested. HOT lanes will give them a choice, at least on the freeways where such lanes are provided. They will also give transit passengers faster and more reliable express bus service, on HOT lanes that remain uncongested at the busiest rush hours. This looks like a win-win to me.