Los Angeles Launches Congestion Pricing Study

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced the start of their much-anticipated project to tackle the region’s infamous traffic congestion problem. LA Metro’s Traffic Reduction Study will investigate whether congestion pricing can be used to equitably and efficiently manage the region’s roadway network by placing a charge on certain roads, possibly at the busiest times of day or when conditions warrant.

The study is notable because it aims to investigate pricing concepts not in the abstract, but whether pilot projects should be introduced in four specific parts of the region. It will consider options such as using tolls on roadways around downtown, over the Santa Monica Mountains, and out toward Santa Monica. It will also examine a cordon concept of pricing vehicles entering the area around downtown, not unlike the program in central London.

The idea for congestion pricing in the region evolved in recent years. In 2018, LA Metro’s Board of Directors charged the agency staff with devising ways to accelerate $25 billion in transportation projects planned in advance of the 2028 Olympic Games to be held there. While congestion pricing was found to be a feasible option for doing so, officials recognized the political challenge of approving congestion pricing as a way to simply accelerate their projects. The investigation underway now is now squarely focused on reducing congestion to promote mobility, equity, and environmental goals by charging drivers to potentially change their behavior by encouraging trips during less-congested parts of the day, of shifting them to shared rides, or transit and non-motorized trips.

Importantly, reducing social inequality and providing access to opportunity for disadvantaged households is a key element of the project. This can be addressed, in part, by providing robust alternatives to paying the charge in the first place. In 2006, about 83 percent of the revenue expended from London’s congestion charge went into to making “radical improvements to bus services.” LA Metro plan that could, among other things, provide free fares to all transit riders.

By advancing the discussion from the abstract to the specific, the LA Metro work is valuable for other U.S. metropolitan areas. New York is famously waiting for federal approval to roll out a major congestion pricing program in Manhattan. Places like Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, DC all have some kind of policy exploration underway to pursue their own congestion pricing strategy.

Last year, Eno published a set of principles for developing viable congestion pricing programs. This report does not replicate the extensive literature and analysis that already exists, but, rather, it addresses the most significant barriers to congestion pricing today: the political, institutional, and communication hurdles. The Los Angeles project will, hopefully, illustrate how those significant barriers can be overcome. It will be worth paying attention to.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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