Could the Sepulveda Corridor Congestion Reduction Plan Equal Carmaheaven?

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A map of the plan. Image: Google Maps and Juan Matute

With Carmageddon once again looming over Los Angeles, we have another opportunity to reflect on the 405 freeway: what does it mean and what do we want from it? 

What does it mean that the 405 between the 90 and the 101 has been under construction for the better part of this millenium, yet it still ranks as one of the most congested freeways in the U.S?  To myself and other transportation researchers, this means that adding capacity and managing the system at the margins doesn’t work for the 405.  It means that more innovative strategies are required for Los Angeles to have a transportation system that works better for everyone.

While millions of Southern Californians dread the weekend closure (perhaps not enough this year), a typical weekday on the 405 leaves hundreds of thousands of Los Angeleños wanting something better.  First, they want to spend less time stuck in traffic and more time doing other things.  Second, they want alternatives, like a robust transit connection between the San Fernando Valley, the Westside, and LAX.  Adding a northbound carpool lane and reconfiguring ramps between the 10 and 101 will not make the 405 any less congested at rush hour on a Friday.

Metro is working to create alternatives, but the agency is short on funding to implement them.  In June, Metro released an interim report on the Sepulveda Pass Corridor Systems Planning Study.  Transportation planners like to string a lot of nouns together, but essentially Metro is looking at options to move more people through the Pass, using buses, new lanes, giant freeway tunnels, and rail transit.  As of June, the were looking at 6 concepts with varied price tags:

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From the interim report on the Sepulveda Pass Corridor Systems Planning Study. Image: Metro.

Metro estimates that light rail from the Sylmar Metrolink to Century/Aviation with a tunnel under the Santa Monica mountains will cost $5.5B.  As only $1B in local funding is available between 2032 and 2039 from Measure R, Metro needs a new source of funds to complete the project.  Even with optimistic projections for state and federal funding and TIFIA financing, Metro faces a $2-3.5B shortfall in constructing this light rail line.  In order to accelerate the project as part of the 30-10 initiative to speed up Measure R transit projects, these new funds are needed within the next decade.  November’s Measure J wouldn’t provide any new funds until after 2039.  The financing program Metro plans to use to accelerate transit project construction already exists.

What’s missing? We need a source that can provide additional funds within the next decade.

Los Angeles needs a long-term plan that brings short term benefits by leveraging private investment in one of Los Angeles’s most consistently congested corridors.  When I looked at the report, I was surprised to see Metro believed that option 4 — a 10 mile, 60-foot wide toll tunnel under the Santa Monica Mountains — had public private partnership potential.  Public-private partnership potential means that there’s profit potential.    At $12.6B in costs, the toll revenues would have to be significant for the tunnel to be profitable.  I then thought — what if Metro simply converted an existing lane (as in concept #2) to a high-occupancy toll lane?  What could they build in lieu of a $12.6B tunnel?  Certainly the $5.5B light rail line (concept #5).

So, after some analysis, I bring you the Sepulveda Corridor Congestion Reduction Plan.  The plan is a public-private partnership that leverages immediate, private investment in the early years in order to bring bring near term relief to automobile and bus commuters, while providing a new source of funds to construct light rail between the San Fernando Valley and LAX by 2025.

Summary of The Sepulveda Corridor Congestion Reduction Plan:

  1. Construct direct access ramps to High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on the 405;
  2. When the direct access ramps are complete, transition the HOV lane and one general purpose lane in each direction to High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes and add new express bus service through the corridor.
  3. Use HOT revenues to fund a light rail link between San Fernando and LAX with a deep bore tunnel under the Sepulveda Pass.

Map of I-405 Corridor Congestion Reduction Plan Projects

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A direct access ramp to an HOV lane in Bellevue, Washington. Photo: Flickr user WSDOT.

As with all plans at this stage, this is a proposal.  I stand by that the general structure works – Metro can use HOT revenues to generate significant funding for other projects that benefit the Sepulveda Corridor.  Direct access ramps, rail alignments, station locations, and funding for other projects are all subject to change based on the public’s input.

I like the plan because it effectively increases highway capacity without breaking the bank, and uses new revenues to fully fund a project that will bring commuters and other travelers additional relief.  I should note that it’s a well kept secret among transportation researchers that a free-flowing, managed HOT lane, can carry more cars and far more people per hour than a congested general lane.  It’s not that we try to keep this a secret — we tell everyone — it’s just that it seems very few people care to listen past the word “toll”.   The proposal will also create thousands of well-paid additional construction jobs for Angelenos within the next decade, while making Los Angeles much easier to get around without a car.

See the full Sepulveda Pass Corridor Congestion Reduction Plan

About the Author
Juan Matute is a board member of the nonprofit organization that operates LA Streetsblog.  He has an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management and an MA in Urban Planning from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. He is currently a transportation researcher and consultant based at UCLA.