Congestion Pricing, Metro, and Why Project Acceleration Might Not Be Such a Great Thing

L.A.'s transit workhorse: the  Metro bus.  Photo via Wikimedia
L.A.'s transit workhorse: the Metro bus. Photo via Wikimedia
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During yesterday’s board meeting, Metro CEO Phil Washington announced that he favors congestion pricing, in conjunction with free transit.

Congestion pricing! Free transit! Free!

The statement was made during a question and answer exchange on potential funding for 28 by 2028 project acceleration for the Olympics. “Only congestion pricing will get rid of congestion,” Washington said.

(This is a consensus among researchers, think tankstransit advocates, civilized nations, and most Streetsblog editors. It is a truth rarely publicly acknowledged by transportation agencies, and essentially never stated by elected officials. Metro’s campaign for Measure M frequently focused on a promise to “ease congestion.”)

Metro CEO Phil Washington's slide on potential congestion pricing - via Metro presentation
Metro CEO Phil Washington’s slide on potential congestion pricing – via Metro presentation

Washington’s presentation touched on several “conceivable ways congestion pricing could be implemented in L.A. County.” Washington opined that he preferred a corridor approach, where agencies could charge drivers and use that revenue to provide a frequent and robust “free transit” alternative. When questioned if this proposal was for free transit just during the Olympics, Washington responded that it would be free transit “forever and ever.”

Streetsblog L.A. excitedly tweeted this out.

Media outlets ran with it; see coverage at The San Gabriel Tribune and Curbed.

What is going on?

Is there some kind of governmental conspiracy afoot (in the words of one skeptical boardmember) to “double-dip” and charge put-upon motorists over and over for freeways that their taxes already paid for?

(Let’s not forget that motorists don’t actually pay the full cost of building and maintaining roads. And note that boardmembers have never thought to suggest that transit fares are “double-dipping.”)

Is Metro really planning to do congestion pricing? (That is, beyond the agency’s successful ExpressLanes tolling projects?)

My friends questioned if Washington’s bold statements might have been an effort to distract from the really crappy decisions to come out of the board meeting yesterday. In deciding Green Line operations, the Metro board screwed lower-income communities of color, choosing to favor the whiter, more suburban South Bay. In deciding what to do with funding for the canceled asinine North 710 Freeway, the Metro board approved a suite of asinine freeway-like road-widening projects.

Here’s my take:

A few months ago, the Metro board said to Washington, “Give us a funding plan for 28 by 2028.” This request came at a time when Republicans were essentially blocking federal transit funding. It was also a time when Republicans were pushing to repeal California’s gas tax. The outlook for accelerating Metro mega-projects looked pretty slim. Frankly, at that time, the prospects for delivering Metro rail projects on their approved Measure M schedule wasn’t looking good, either.

(I would say that, basically due to the Trump administration, any serious L.A. County transit project acceleration is a long shot.  With Prop 6 defeated and talk of a green new deal, it looks better than it did a couple months ago. It’s not impossible, but it would take some major rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick where the feds and the state kick down some serious money fairly soon.)

Asked to fund 28 by 2028, Washington turned around and put things back in the board’s lap. He basically said if you want acceleration, you have to do something bold. He and his staff then tossed the proverbial bunch of spaghetti on the wall to see what would stick. Yesterday, Washington proposed numerous potential funding measures, including:
  • congestion pricing
  • federal money (something President Donald Trump mostly won’t do for transit, especially for California, Los Angeles)
  • state funds
  • delaying bus electrification (something Mayor Eric Garcietti won’t allow)
  • selling station naming rights (something Supervisor Sheila Kuehl won’t allow)
  • cities could give up their Measure M local return funds (something cities won’t do)
  • borrowing lots of money (something the Metro board won’t do)
  • charging fees for TNCs and scooters
  • canceling bike-share

(Note that the majority of the actual funding in play here would depend on things outside Metro’s purview. The devils are in the details which aren’t available. But, taking congestion pricing, which I would love for Metro to do, probably can’t happen without approvals from the federal government, the state, county, and local city or cities. So the Metro board could approve a plan that tells Metro to do congestion pricing, but then those electeds would have to sell it to their own constituents.)

Washington knows that most, if not all, of these strategies won’t get approved by his board. At the end of the day, Washington can say that Metro would have accelerated stuff, but the board couldn’t agree on how to make it happen.

And… this might be a good thing.

Because 28 by 2028 isn’t all roses.

It turns out to be actually more highway project acceleration than transit, walking, or bicycling. Of the 28 projects, Metro was already scheduled to complete about 20 of them by 2028.

The actual acceleration is only nine projects: five highway projects and four transit projects.

Does L.A. really need to mortgage the farm to accelerate highway widening? I lived and drove in Southern California in 1984, and during the month the games were happening, freeway traffic was nearly non-existent. Like with Carmageddon, the predicted nightmare congestion failed to materialize.

28 by 2028 would accelerate five highway projects: 105 Freeway ExpressLanes, 10 Freeway ExpressLanes from the 605 to San Bernardino County Line, 710 Freeway South expansion, 57/60 Freeways Interchange, and the 405 Freeway South Bay Curve. I’d love to see more ExpressLanes, but, again, does L.A. really need to take heroic measures to accelerate billions of dollars worth of freeway expansion?

Then there are the four transit projects, which I like, but they do have their issues:

  • Sepulveda Transit Corridor – I confess that I am not entirely clear on the scope of this project. As I read it, this could be some kind of early freeway BRT phase of a planned heavy rail project. Update: this is rail extending from the Valley to the Expo Line, estimated at $8+ billion. It’s very worthwhile, but pretty costly. By itself it is about a third of the total 28 by 2028 acceleration costs.
  • Gold Line Eastside Extension – The alignment that seems to have the most support is light rail in the middle of the 60 Freeway skirting a large EPA Superfund toxic landfill. What could go wrong? I would like to see the Washington Boulevard alignment accelerated on this one.
  • West Santa Ana Branch – Don’t get me started on the bad decisions already made on this one. The price is already climbing.
  • South Bay Light Rail Extension – This light rail is planned to go through a suburb (Lawndale) that doesn’t want it – to get to suburban park-and-ride stations.

I don’t mean to dump on these rail projects. I actually like them. I want these projects to be successful. I want to ride them. I am just not completely convinced that accelerating them is the best course of action right now. The issues I’ve raised are mostly minor kinks that can be worked out in the planning processes, which I hope won’t get short shrift in the service of urgent project acceleration.

Kudos to Garcetti for showing some vision. Yes, the Olympics present L.A. with an opportunity to get stuff built.

Kudos to Phil Washington for putting some very good ideas on the table. Yes on congestion pricing! Yes on free and very low-cost transit!

Thanks also to Washington for making it clear that if the board wants more “ornaments on the tree,” they will need to figure out how to pay for it.

What wasn’t said clearly yesterday is who the loser is likely to be in this acceleration game: bus riders. When Metro marshals its might to build shiny new capital projects, it sucks the remaining air out of the room. In turn, buses get older, less reliable, less frequent.

Washington made the case, perhaps not as forcefully as I would like to see, that Metro has to preserve some core concerns – operations, state of good repair, NexGen bus service upgrades, and more.

But why not use this Olympic opportunity to uplift the bus? With a multi-billion-dollar funding gap due to those highway projects, maybe it’s time to upgrade buses instead. Ditching just one highway project could mean massive bus upgrades. 28 by 2028 should include system-wide all-door boarding, 28 new bus-only lane segments, more frequent buses – perhaps 28 more buses every day on 28 existing bus lines! Maybe 28 new bus lines! 28 more buses for municipal operators.

Readers – that’s my opinion, what do you think?

  • Lorenzo Mutia

    Congestion pricing (with exemptions or lower prices for low-income drivers) can definitely fund bus improvements- that need to be more of a priority going forward.

  • Matt

    Unfortunately, congestion pricing would be very unlikely to work in LA. We just don’t have anything like Central London or Lower Manhattan. If they try it in DTLA it will just kill the area.

    People are abandoning the bus system in droves and there just isn’t much support for any real expansion for a dying system. Bus lanes on Wilshire have been ineffective and are a non starter just about anywhere else.

    Accelerating the rail projects sounds good but it was a much better idea in 2008 when we knew what projects were ready to go and construction costs were not soaring as they are today. The Gold Line Extension is already over half a billion over budget. Expect the same with all these other projects.

  • Jake Bloo

    It does seem like the only way to save Los Angeles (from ourselves, from gridlock, from carbon emissions) is to get people out of their cars, and the most effective (and perhaps drastic) way to do so is through congestion pricing and, in return, free public transportation.

    I know there are so many hurdles and this is some type of YIMBY dream, but the other option of basically just continuing to drive ourselves deeper into a car-nightmare will suffocate us.

  • Jason

    Considering that all the transit in LA centers on DTLA, I think DTLA is the one place where congestion pricing can actually work.

  • Matt

    I agree it is the only possible place, but it is not nearly strong enough to weather a congestion charge. DTLA still has a big image problem and a terrible homeless issue. A lot of people avoid it now even without a congestion charge.

    Really, the only solution would be tolls on freeways. The 405 through the Pass is a prime candidate. Even then there is going to be many problems including the Valley seceding, parallel street congestion, etc….

  • Jason

    A lot of people avoid it, but it’s also one of the hottest places to build new luxury apartments. I know that’s due in good part to DTLA being one of the only places in LA where it’s not a complete fucking Kafkaesque nightmare to get underway on building apartment towers, but there’s clearly demand amongst the general population to be there despite the lingering image problems. Which in turns suggests that the people who avoid it don’t actually need to be there…and that the people choosing to be there value the walkability and transit access. So I don’t really see why we should care that some suburban motorists would probably choose to stay away under congestion pricing–they probably only rarely go to DTLA in the first place anyhow.

  • Matt

    DT residential population is still way too small to support the businesses, restaurants, shops, and hotels in the area. People would also demand their offices relocate in DTLA’s still weak office market. DT would just be homeless and a few residents. Just the other day, a local tailor was pushed into an oncoming truck by a homeless guy.

  • Wanderer

    When I visit Downtown LA these days the problem seems to be accommodating all the people who want to go there, not luring people to an abandoned wasteland. Surface parking lots and small parking structures are being developed with large buildings.

    What if Metro extended Express Lanes to other freeway corridors that serve Downtown LA? Maybe it could gradually build up an effective cordon around Downtown, then do full congestion pricing.

  • Clee00
  • 1976boy

    You’re making the assumption that most people get to DTLA by driving there. While that might be true for Staples Center, it’s actually not true for most of the rest of DTLA.

    You cite the drop in bus ridership, but the trends that show transit dropping are only true for long distance commuting, and as an average across the county. In the dense areas well served by transit: DTLA, Hollywood, and Koreatown, ridership is very healthy and an entire culture and economy has formed around it that would never have happened otherwise. DTLA is thriving exactly BECAUSE of transit, not in spite of it.

  • Matt

    Most people still drive to their jobs in DTLA. Sure, transit has been good for DTLA – I never argued that.

  • 1976boy

    No they don’t. A majority use transit. 500,000 people work downtown. The roads can’t handle that.

  • Matt

    Metro has only 1.2 million rides per weekday across all of LA County, of which DTLA is a tiny part. That is 600,000 people round trip. No more people work Downtown now than 30 years ago yet 30 years ago there was only some busses. The roads are more packed now than then and transit hasn’t grown since 1985 and is actually smaller.

  • Danny

    The trains point to DTLA and Union Station. People commute in all directions. They need to create a network in one area to another. Go where people want to go. Outside of rush hour, Metro doesn’t take me where I want to go. Shopping, entertainment, food? I’ll take the car.

    Please add more stops to the West Santa Ana Branch with a stop at the Cerritos Mall.

  • Ray

    With a congestion pricing, they should get rid of the transit sales taxes. It’s totally unfair to have both. Also, with a properly functioning surface road transportation system, the parallel train lines aren’t need, only higher capacity vehicles that use smarter roads. The money needs to be spent on smartening roads and smartening vehicles, not on building an old fashioned parallel train system. At least the public is finally understanding that free access to a transportation corridor creates a shortage.

  • Joe Linton

    What “transit sales taxes” are you referring to? Neither Measure M nor Measure R (Metro’s two recent sales tax measures) have a majority of funding going to transit. Though they fund transit projects, these sales taxes fund many multi-billion dollar highway projects. They includes a lot of local return monies that go to cities, which spend them primarily on facilities that serve car transportation. This is what the voters approved, I wouldn’t expect the voters to get rid of this.