Metro Board on Congestion Pricing: Trying to Count the Votes

Congestion pricing could solve many L.A. problems, but where will be most appropriate to pilot? Photo by peter boy12qq12 via Wikimedia
Congestion pricing could solve many L.A. problems, but where will be most appropriate to pilot? Photo by peter boy12qq12 via Wikimedia

In case readers missed it, Metro is considering congestion pricing. It’s part of a multi-faceted proposal to pay for accelerating projects in advance of the 2028 Olympics.

Specifically, at Metro’s January board meeting (video) CEO Phil Washington sought board approval to undertake a feasibility study on congestion pricing.

Just a study.

Washington said that the proposed 12-to-24-month congestion pricing study would address equity issues. He said that it would include outreach. He said that he would come back to the Metro board for a vote before moving forward with any congestion pricing pilot.

Unfortunately, from January’s board discussion, it appears that many on the Metro board have already their minds made up about congestion pricing, and seem reluctant even to study it. Several boardmembers expressed contempt for the concept. Others moved, successfully, to delay the study. After a heated discussions in December and January, the Metro board delayed deciding whether to study or not. It is expected to be back at the February board committee meetings next week.

What follows is a look at where the Metro board stands on congestion pricing, mainly based on sentiments expressed at January’s board meeting.

Likely Favoring Studying Congestion Pricing

Board chair Sheila Kuehl hit it out of the park with her comments on congestion pricing. Kuehl has a stellar decades-long track record on progressive issues, especially environmental ones, though occasionally her Metro positions can be driver-focused. At January’s Metro board meeting, when the board seemed mostly focused on low-income drivers, Kuehl rightly shifted the focus. She recalled the 1940s when L.A.’s public transit system gave lower income people the option of not owning a car. She decried how expensive it is for folks to own and operate a car (this echoed in today’s news: predatory car loans are a huge equity issue with a record seven million Americans months behind on car payments) and asserted “it could be better for peoples’ budgets if they have the option of public transportation.” From there, she also touched on congestion pricing being good for global warming, sustainability, and public health. Kudos to Kuehl for pushing the board to have Metro at least explore how congestion pricing could work.

While L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti was not present, it appears that his appointees–Mike Bonin, Paul Krekorian, and Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker–all appear to be on board with a study proceeding, though each expressed slightly differing reasons. Garcetti has been one of the main proponents of accelerating projects for the Olympics.

Boardmember John Fasana has long supported Metro’s ExpressLanes, and is generally supportive of studying further congestion pricing.

On the Fence

Metro boardmembers James Butts and Hilda Solis both put forward motions that questioned the congestion pricing study. Both motions were approved by the board.

Butts’ motion was somewhat technocratic. It directs Metro to provide the budget, timeline, and tasks to be performed in the proposed congestion pricing study.

Solis’ motion is co-authored by Garcetti, Dupont-Walker, Butts, and Janice Hahn. It calls for an “Equity Strategy for Congestion Pricing” to “minimize economic impacts to low-income drivers”  and for adding equity experts to an advisory council, so they can “consider the effects of congestion pricing on drivers that rely on their vehicles for their livelihood. (emphases added) The equity motion effectively blocks congestion pricing revenue from paying for project acceleration until the study is completed.

The concern for low-income drivers repeatedly came up in the board’s discussion. Butts expressed concern for “landscapers, tradespeople… who can’t get on mass transportation.” Hahn stated “I drive the 110 almost every day. For so many people on the 110, their car is their job: landscapers, the pest control people, the guys that carry the windows on the side of their car, the emergency bloodmobile people, [and people driving] trucks.” Let’s hope that people driving bloodmobiles are a) making a living wage and b) not paying bloodmobile operating expenses out of pocket. The broader point is true, though: there are low income drivers whom transit does not serve.

While supervisor Solis’ equity motion mentions transit riders in its preamble, they are absent from the motion’s directions.

It is important for congestion pricing to take low-income drivers into account. This can be addressed in large part by offering utility-type lifeline exemptions/discounts for low income drivers, as Metro’s ExpressLanes programs do.

But focusing too tightly on drivers misses much of a bigger equity picture. In that larger picture, appropriately-structured congestion pricing can advance equity–much better than current car-centric paradigms.

Driving is not an option for many Angelenos. Low-income people who get around on transit will benefit from congestion pricing. Driving also has significant adverse impacts on people who don’t drive. Communities of color suffer pollution burdens from adjacent freeways. Children in these communities suffer from higher rates of asthma. Car-centric approaches perpetuate existing inequalities in traffic deaths/injuries, health, law enforcement treatment, etc.

Equity is also impacted by how congestion pricing revenue is spent. Low-income people will not be the primary beneficiaries if revenues go to accelerate freeway widening, as currently planned under the 28 by 2028 Olympics project acceleration.  Fostering equity would mean using pricing revenue to improve the bus system. Phil Washington expressed his support for using road pricing revenue to make parallel transit lines free. For the most part though, equity benefits from this revenue would not go to low income drivers, except indirectly – by giving them mobility options other than being stuck in their cars.

Metro staff will be responding to these motions next week.

Likely Opposing Studying Congestion Pricing 

Boardmembers Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger made it pretty clear that they currently oppose congestion pricing.

Barger stated that she had “serious concerns” about congestion pricing which she repeatedly characterized as “punitive.” She stated that road pricing would not be fair to her constituents living in areas not well-served by transit, including the Antelope Valley. She did mention that “we’re building bike lanes” (where?) and asked “are we going to impose a fee on bike riders who are using our roads?” She was apparently referring to Metro staff’s recommended new mobility fees, which include fees on dockless bike-share (as well as ride-hail and e-scooters.)

Hahn stated that she was “not comfortable approving anything or receiving and filing anything [related to congestion pricing]” at January’s meeting.

Boardmember Ara Najarian expressed that he shared Barger’s concerns, especially pricing being unfair to those who live in far flung locales.

  • Joel Epstein

    “Kuehl has a stellar decades-long track record on progressive issues, especially environmental ones, though occasionally her Metro positions can be driver-focused…” How short our memories… Is she’s so progressive on environmental issues than why when running for Supervisor did she pander to Beverly Hills saying she’d need to look into the NIMBY city’s concerns about the subway? As if there were a modicum of reason in the opposition to a tunnel under BHHS. Additionally she has stood in the way of raising money for the subways through corporate sponsorship making up spurious arguments that the agency couldn’t figure out how to set parameters on who is a valid sponsor and who is undeserving of having their name on a station. The rest of the world has figured it out. What makes LA Metro unqualified to try? I’d take the Purple Line named after whoever helps pay for it over Kuehl in her little red roadster any day. Sadly, Kuehl seems to be a “public servant” who doesn’t understand that these projects cost a fortune and if we want to get them built before the State completes CHSR and hell freezes over we have to look for funding from every conceivable source.

  • LAdevelop

    Sounds like there are 6 likely “yes” votes: Kuehl, Garcetti, Bonin, Krekorian, Dupont-Walker, and Fasana. Assuming this vote only needs a simple majority (I think that’s how it works?), we’d only need one of Butts, Solis, Ridley-Thomas, and Garcia. Butts and Solis are described in this article, and it’s unclear to me which way they lean. Ridley-Thomas originally introduced the motion that allowed for the express lanes (which is essentially congestion pricing-lite) back in 2008, so I’d think he would lean yes. Garcia is generally very pro-transit, so my guess is he’d lean yes as well.

    Surprisingly, it actually seems like the votes may be there!

  • Joe Linton

    It’s a simple majority. It will depend on who shows up – but similar to you, my hunch is that Ridley-Thomas, Garcia, and/or Solis could be the vote/s that get this approved. (And getting the study approved probably isn’t the hard part!)

  • LAdevelop

    Thanks for the reply, Joe. Fingers crossed. I think if done correctly, this could be the single most transformative transportation initiative we’ve had in decades.

  • keenplanner

    This isn’t rocket science. All other cities that have congestion pricing have taken into account accommodating lower-income and commercial traffic. This issue has become a red herring to those who simply don’t want to have to make the wise but probably politically-unpopular decision to vote yea.
    So, why not fund a study to iron out the fine details? Seems like the correct next step.

  • keenplanner

    Well, because protocol for electeds prevents them from saying “you people are self-entitled idiots and should just f*ck off!” in public meetings, as much as many people wish they would say it.

  • Joel Epstein

    Troll.

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