L.A.’s “Congestion Pricing” Gaining National Attention

3_17_09_salik.jpgPeak hour congestion pricing: Good enough for Dubai, too radical for L.A.

Two of the nation's more prominent political bloggers have recently weighed in on what congestion pricing would mean to Los Angeles. Atrios, a writer for Media Matters for America, responds to criticism of congestion pricing at his personal blog by explaining that congestion pricing is more about "congestion" and less about "pricing."

But the reason to have a congestion toll is that... there's too much congestion! Road congestion involves an unpriced externality. That is, when you get on a crowded freeway in the morning you take into account your private cost (cost of expected travel time), but don't take into account the fact that your car on the road is making things just a bit worse off. Everyone pays for this excess congestion by extra waiting in traffic time. Tolling is essentially a way to replace "excess wasted time in traffic jams" with money raised, which could either be spent on productive things (SUPERTRAINS) or just rebated back to all people.

The point isn't to punish people for driving, it's to try to line up incentives a bit more closely with actual costs in order to make more efficient use of the existing infrastructure.

Responding to Atrios, Matt Yglesias at Think Progress takes things a step further by arguing that congestion pricing will have a great benefit...for people of lower incomes:

One thing to think about, though, is what kinds of people really really need to be at work on time. For a normal professional, this isn’t that big a deal. If you’re ten or fifteen minutes late to work every now and again, it’s not that big a deal. But for shift workers, who tend to be further down the economic totem pole, showing up late will get you fired—it’s hard to make up for it by just staying late or putting an hour in on Saturday from home. People like that would reap a disproportionately large benefit from the reduction in congestion associated with a congestion price.

While all of this is well and good and congestion pricing could be a major benefit to car commuters, what is missing from these arguments is that Metro's "FAST Lanes" plan won't do anyhing to help rush-hour commuters, when traffic jams are at their worst because the FAST Lanes will be regular HOV Lanes during peak hour periods. While it may be clear to some of America's most influential left-wing bloggers that congestion pricing is about pricing roads to maximize their efficiency at peak periods, Metro continues to push a pricing plan that is designed only to help when roads are at their least congested.

Metro is planning to have its congestion pricing plan in place for New Years of 2011.

Photo: Pip the Pony/Flickr