Concepts under consideration
In February, Metro officials announced four early concepts for a pilot program and zeroed in on two forms of congestion pricing that could be used alone or in tandem: cordon pricing, in which motorists pay to drive in a designated zone (as in London), and corridor pricing, in which drivers pay to use a stretch of road or freeway. (At the moment, the agency isn’t considering a third form known as Vehicle Miles Traveled pricing, in which drivers pay based on distance driven.)
These are the four concepts under consideration:
- Downtown Los Angeles, where a cordon zone akin to the one in central London would require drivers to pay to enter the area at peak times.
- Interstate 10, where motorists would pay to drive the freeway, and possibly adjacent arteries, between downtown Los Angeles and the Westside during the busiest hours.
- The Santa Monica Mountains corridor, where at busy times, drivers would pay to use north-south arteries between Interstate 405 and Interstate 5 from the San Fernando Valley to the L.A. basin. The agency could also limit the fee to a smaller area between US 101 and I-5.
- Downtown Los Angeles freeways, which would include corridor pricing at peak times in the area.
By summer, Metro’s board is expected to select one area of focus, with a vote likely in spring of 2022 on moving forward with a pilot program.
Transportation officials know that rallying public support for new road fees will be challenging. But some observers believe the pandemic’s effects could help inspire support. For starters, when stay-at-home orders took effect early last year, Southern Californians experienced a region without gridlock firsthand, says UCLA urban planning associate professor Michael Manville. “To the extent that you convince people that pricing is the policy path that gets you to a situation like that, then people having had this experience might help the cause,” he said.
In addition, the recent rise in telecommuting could inspire newly mobile workers who’ve grown tired of Southern California traffic (not to mention high housing costs and other issues) to leave the region—thus pressuring officials to solve the area’s traffic woes to stay competitive, says Marlon Boarnet, a professor at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. “The cities that can implement congestion pricing in a way that’s smart, that has support, and that’s fair, I think, will be positioned long-term to have an advantage in terms of economic development.”
Finally, “If people don’t like it, then we’ll take it out,” Metro’s Schank says. “But let’s at least try something to make a difference, so that when the pandemic ends and the traffic comes back, we don’t go back to the misery that a lot of us were experiencing.”
But critics argue that imposing new fees will make life harder for people who are already struggling. “Wealthier people can pay an extra $10 to $15 a day and get the benefit of faster drives, while lower-income people could be priced out of their cars,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote in 2019. The board voiced little doubt that congestion pricing could reduce the region’s traffic and improve air quality. “The unanswered question at this point,” the board concluded, “is whether Metro can do it in a way that’s both effective and fair.”
Metro officials say they can. Revenue generated by the fee could subsidize payments for low-income drivers. In addition, those who commute by bus—who disproportionately earn less income—would get around town faster as congestion eases. Also, “you’ve got traffic congestion on freeways emitting greenhouse gases and other noxious emissions into more poor neighborhoods than anywhere else,” Schank says. “Pricing and mobility improvement packages have the potential to reduce that inequity if they’re done correctly.”
Addressing those concerns will be key, said Kome Ajiese, SCAG’s executive director. “As we work toward an economic recovery, we don’t want to do anything with congestion pricing that would make worse the inequities that are already in place.”