Monday, May 5th, 2008 at 7:32 pm in Misc. Transportation.
At least once a weekend, I like to go to a local sit-down eatery and enjoy a copy of the Times. New York, LA, Contra Costa, it doesn’t matter. This Saturday, it was the LA version over shawarma at a Palestinian-run diner.
As much as I try to stay away from transportation stories on my days off, the op-ed piece by Metropolitan Transportation Agency chief Roger Snoble and Caltrans LA area director jumped out at me. Not the least because the last time I heard Snoble’s name, it was when outgoing Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez demanded his head on a platter for allegedly failing to fight hard enough for freight corridors bond money from the California Transportation Commission.
This was about another way of collecting money for transportation, with the advantage of not costing interest and, according to Snoble and Caltrans, a proven way of reducing congestion. It’s what they call “HOT,” or high-occupancy toll lanes around here, with the FasTrak-paid toll raised or lowered to keep traffic moving:
This isn’t some untested notion. Congestion pricing has worked successfully in San Diego and Orange counties, Houston, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and cities around the world. On Interstate 15 in San Diego County, where eight miles of carpool lanes were converted, commuters now save an average of 20 minutes using the new toll lanes. Express bus service in the lanes attracted an additional 400,000 new passenger boardings annually. In Salt Lake City, the converted lanes are handling 46% more vehicles than before and still maintaining speeds of 45 mph or better. Higher and more stable speeds are the norm now in toll and regular lanes.
As one might expect, there are a lot of people who don’t like the idea of more of this stuff in Southern California. I wrote material for a newspaper back east about State Highway 91’s “Lexus Lanes,” as doubters and opponents like to call them.
I confess I didn’t think much of the idea when I first heard about it. Paying $5 or $10 to get past one traffic jam is a lot for your average landscaper, but is just the cost of doing business for your average movie producer or head of a large government agency.
But as I’ve said before about carpool lanes, in their pure form, they keep traffic moving. That’s not just a boon for the people paying for the fast lane, but for people in the slow lanes, too. Congestion doesn’t just slow traffic down. It greatly reduces the capacity of the freeway. Opening up one of those clogged pipes means that a lot more traffic drains through, which takes pressure off the other pipes, too. So the rich are actually doing the proles a favor by paying their way through.
Whether you accept this reasoning or not, there’s still the matter of raising money for transportation. You can’t raise taxes in California unless we all scream at the top of our lungs, “Charge us more! We earn too much money and the government can spend it better than we can!” Good luck with that.
Snoble and Caltrans District 7 Director Doug Failing describe in the piece how the federally funded idea to test the toll lanes on the I-10 San Bernardino Freeway, I-210 Foothill Freeway and the I-110 Harbor Freeway was immediately attacked by pundits who complained that the freeways would no longer be free:
First, the freeways aren’t free. L.A. County commuters waste, on average, 72 hours a year stuck in traffic, which translates into more than $1,000 in excess fuel costs and lost productivity. And congestion will get worse as our population grows. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority projects that by 2030, average freeway speeds will drop 40% if we do nothing. …
Building new freeways, or even expanding existing ones, is extremely difficult. The region is so built up, and the environmental and funding hurdles so onerous, it would be decades before any construction was complete.
Some folks would prefer gridlock to force people to use public transit, but I’ve got a dollar here that says we can’t afford the transit, either. The thing that captivated me about this experiment is that Caltrans and MTA are considering giving credit to regular transit riders (and in LA, they are a hardy bunch, let me say from experience) that they can use to pay tolls on an occasional driving day.
For someone who bounces between driving and taking transit on a regular basis, that would be nirvana, plus if structured well it would make me drive less. Even if they don’t decide to go that way, the Bay Area could learn something from it and maybe throw our transit riders a bone for all their trouble.