Alan Ferdman | Congestion Pricing and Toll Roads


For the past several months, Los Angeles County Metro has been providing public outreach and conducting informational meetings on their proposal to reduce traffic congestion using a method called “congestion pricing.” Translated into plain English it means, establishing “tolls or charges” to use certain roads at certain times of the day. Their concept asserts, if we charge drivers to pay for access to congested highways, and possibly streets, they will find other ways to get where they are going, and traffic congestion will be reduced. They estimate, if they can reduce traffic in congested areas by 10 to 15%, traffic will flow freely once again. 

But what are the other ways for you to get to work, school, or your doctor’s office? They claim you could take an alternate route, take public transportation (which may or may not be available), ride a bicycle, or walk. Do these alternate travel methods sound as unrealistic to you as it did to me? 

For 46 of the years I resided in the Santa Clarita Valley, I commuted 30 miles one way to work. How could I avoid the congestion fee? Bicycles and walking 30 miles are not an option. My commute took me first to Woodland Hills and later to JPL (Pasadena) where public transportation was either non-existent or limited the time of day when I would arrive at my place of employment or return home, and that would have been career-limiting. 

To let the public in on their plans, the L.A. Metro organization hosted multiple traffic reduction study meetings this month. When I attended the first meeting, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to interact with some well-coached sales representatives, trying to answer every question with a positive spin about their new proposal. Part of their justification for looking into congestion pricing was the success achieved in London, Milan and Stockholm. But in the study meeting held on Feb. 27, they dropped one of the European cities and identified Seattle as one of their successful example locations. So, during my chance to speak, I made mention of having traveled through Seattle recently and the congestion I witnessed going through the city was terrible. The answer from Metro staff was, “That is not what the data shows.” 

Well, it did not take more than two minutes after leaving the meeting to query congestion pricing in Seattle, and learn some significant facts. First, Seattle published their Phase 1 Congestion Pricing Study in May 2019, which also showed it had a long way to go prior to implementation. Therefore, there is no empirical data available from Seattle showing congestion pricing to be effective. Second, the study revealed, Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Buenos Ares are currently engaged in similar studies. Yet, both Seattle’s documentation and Los Angeles information appear to be generated from the same boilerplate, with the same issues and politically correct answers, written to provide goals without any concrete implementation details. Looked a lot like Metro copied someone else’s homework. 

Seattle’s press had their say also. In April 2019 the Seattle Times editorial staff published an article titled “No to Seattle Congestion Pricing,” which shared their opinion, “Seattle should not toll city streets or implement a congestion charge downtown. These charges would do little to curb automobile usage in the Seattle area. But they would make Seattle less accessible, more inequitable and a less appealing place to live, work, shop and be entertained.” 

At the Feb. 8 Santa Clarita City Council meeting, the City Council unanimously took a position opposing congestion pricing (toll roads) as well. During the meeting, staff reported that entering London’s business district during rush hour costs drivers $20 per trip. Imagine having to add that cost to your daily commute. 

Metro’s plan appears to be similar in concept to carpool lanes, except on steroids. It would give drivers who can afford to pay the toll a faster trip, while forcing increased traffic to be handled by the remaining lanes. Doing the math, suppose a highway has three lanes and is heavily congested. Add one additional lane and you will have 25% more capacity. But, if you make it a carpool lane and the lane is running freely, you may have only added half the available capacity, or 12.5%. Therefore, if Metro’s estimate of needing 10 to 15% added capacity to eliminate congestion is accurate, we could eliminate carpool lanes and solve the problem, without charging a toll. 

Bet you do not believe any of this, either. 

During the question-and-answer period, one person shared her opinion stating congestion pricing would hurt middle-income residents the most. It sounded like low-income residents would be given a discount, and high-income residents would easily absorb the cost, but those caught in the middle would be impacted the most. She asked, “What will middle-income residents get out of this program?” 

Tham Nguyen, the Metro project manager, answered that residents will get back time, possibly 15 to 30 minutes a day. Well, I remember being young and starting out at the bottom of the pile. I also recall struggling to meet my financial obligations each week. If I needed to make my mortgage and put food on the table, I bet the supermarket will not exchange “my Metro time saved” for food. Tham’s answer came across as arrogant and disconnected with reality. 

We are currently witnessing problems created by Metro’s failure to meet our community’s travel demands, and land use planning that has made decisions without properly analyzing existing road capabilities. But it will be disastrous if Metro implements congestion pricing, and measures success using how fast their toll roads are flowing, instead of validating that all lane flows have improved. 

Because, without a realistic fix, traffic congestion will only grow worse, and I do not believe congestion pricing is a realistic, good, or a permanent fix. If you want to end this irrational plan, please call Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s office, and tell them to stop the toll road (congestion pricing) project.

Alan Ferdman is a Santa Clarita resident and a member of the Canyon Country Advisory Committee board.

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