LA County Eyes Fee to Drive Area’s Busiest Roadways

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Los Angeles County’s proposal to charge drivers a fee to access certain roadways during peak travel times drew sharp criticism Thursday from regional transportation officials concerned about the fee’s impact on low income drivers.

Morning rush hour traffic makes it’s way along US 101 near downtown Los Angeles
Nov. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro, has proposed congestion pricing on county highways as a way to curb traffic, which in turn could help the county reach its targets for cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

A congestion pricing model that charges drivers when they cross a boundary around LA’s central district could bring in $1.2 billion in annual revenue for the county while another model, which charges a fee based on number of miles driven during peak times on critical traffic arteries, could raise more than $10 billion annually, a Metro report said.

A third model that would charge drivers a fee for travelling on 10 designated corridors in the county would raise about $5 billion annually, according to the report.

At a board of directors meeting Thursday, Metro CEO Phillip Washington touted the proposal as a way to accelerate completion of 28 projects Metro wants built for the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games in LA.

The 28 projects – which include extending a major LA subway line and building an airport transit connector station and LA River bike path – carry a $42.9 billion price tag, according to a department report, but Metro is short $26.2 billion.

Washington said the cost to drivers for using the roads is too low and congestion pricing, coupled with state and federal funds and a fee for trips on ride-hail apps like Uber and Lyft, could fill the funding gap for more public transit alternatives and potentially free fares.

In order to maintain a healthy credit rating, Metro prefers not to take on more debt to finance the projects, Washington added.

But it’s unclear if LA County residents will support congestion pricing given the state’s affection – or obsession – with driving and recent tax measures funding 70 percent of the region’s transit system improvements.

Measure M, approved by voters in November 2017 gives Metro $120 billion over the next 40 years to build a state-of-the-art regional transit network.

Washington challenged residents and elected officials to embrace funding efforts that might be politically challenging to endorse.

“These initiatives are big and bold, if we want to achieve them our strategies must be bold as well,” Washington said.

While Metro’s board lauded Washington’s grand vision on Thursday, they said congestion pricing could hurt low-income drivers while failing to address the root cause of congestion: The lack of reliable and affordable transit alternatives.

LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn said people who use their car for work, or on an unpredictable schedule, should be exempt from extra fees.

“Public transit won’t work for them and their schedules, so how do we exempt them from [congestion pricing]?” Hahn asked.

LA City Councilmember Paul Krekorian said congestion pricing could be palatable if Metro better explained its vision for regional public transit.

“People will support a vision but not lofty dreamy plans,” Krekorian said. “If we want to see these things done, we have to find a way to pay for them and some may be politically challenging.”

Genevieve Giuliano, a transit expert at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, echoed the board’s concerns but said in an interview that research supports roadway fees as a method to curb congestion.

“If you really want to reduce congestion, it does work if you decide to charge people for congestion they cause,” Giuliano said.

But congestion pricing could cause traffic to spill over into arterial streets and clog community roads near highways as people adjust their travel patterns, Giuliano said.

Another complication is what to do with revenue, Giuliano said, adding the county could subsidize people’s travel as a way to build in equity.

“We could take some revenue and give to lower income folks as a monthly stipend as an offset for inconvenience,” Giuliano said.

Next month, the board will vote on a motion by LA County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis to require Metro to develop a strategy to mitigate any negative impact of congestion pricing on low-income drivers who rely on their vehicles for their livelihood.

Solis’ motion also calls on Metro to form an advisory group made up of residents, local academics, community groups and county staff that would devise specific mitigation measures.

In a statement after the meeting, Solis said Metro should consider the fact that the county’s poorest households already spend a disproportionate amount of their incomes on transportation.

“Further, our lowest-income communities almost always receive a disparate burden of the negative effects of our current transportation infrastructure: poor public transit options, heavy traffic, and unhealthy levels of air pollution,” Solis said.

Washington said in response to the motion that Metro is already planning to include local stakeholders in conversations about equity.

The board decided to pass on a vote to protect Washington’s list of “sacred cows,” large-scale transit projects his office deems too critical to delay or cut funding from.

The list includes a planned revamp and total electrification of the bus network, funding for repairs and a White House task force on the 2028 Olympics in LA. The matter will instead be voted on Feb. 28.

London has had a congestion charge since 2003; currently it costs drivers just over $15 a day to enter what is essentially the whole of central London. Exemptions exist for people unable to travel on public transport and residents living within or near the zone get a 90 percent discount.

An exemption for London’s famous taxis ends in April, as do reductions for most low-emissions vehicles. Furthermore, vehicles that produce more emissions pay an extra $13 on top of the congestion charge. That fee goes up to over $16 in April for cars and motorcycles and a whopping $131 a day for trucks.

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