The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Monday, March 10, 2008

LA HOT lanes pros and cons


The following essay is the first of a guest series on HOT lanes by Damien Newton, author of the blog Street Heat LA.

In Los Angeles, it's not hard to picture yourself missing a plane or an important meeting because you're caught in traffic. Figuring out how to end L.A.'s traffic nightmare has become a top issue not just for transportation planners, but also for Mayor Villaraigosa, the City Council and Metro Board Members. Yet, when Metro announced it was submitting a funding proposal to pay for a congestion pricing plan, the reaction was near-uniformly negative.

Before going on, let's make clear what congestion pricing is. Metro defines congestion pricing as "charging for the use of a transportation facility, such as a roadway, based on the level of traffic congestion. The greater the level of congestion, usually occurring morning and evening rush hours, the higher the cost to use the facility."

The particular plan being proposed involves so-called high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, which have a price that fluctuates with demand and the number of people in the car. Much of the current anger comes because Metro is, in some instances, going to take lanes that are currently HOV lanes and change them to HOT lanes. Many people see this as a new tax on people driving hybrids or carpooling.

When the L.A. Times asked people to e-mail them their comments, the response was negative: "every reader who e-mailed us said they hated it." LA City Beat described the public reaction as similar to what would happen if a small tactical nuclear bomb went off.

When it comes to public reaction, Metro only has itself to blame.

When New York City decided to propose a congestion pricing plan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg realized such a proposal would be controversial. Before releasing his plan to the public, Bloomberg enlisted allies. Leaders of environmental and transportation reform groups were given special briefings and banded together to promote the plan and win over a skeptical public.

The key to gaining approval was knowing what the benefits of the plan would be. Congestion pricing proponents were able to paint a complete picture of the benefits: lower air pollution, better transit service (funds generated go right back to transit) and less highway congestion. New York City hasn't unified around a single congestion pricing plan, but several different plans are being discussed at the moment, and the natural allies for congestion pricing have kept the most ambitious plans on the table.

In L.A., it hasn't worked out that way. If there was a head's-up to transportation reformers and environmentalists, it didn't energize anyone enough to get them to speak up for the proposal. The silence from potential supporters is deafening.

If HOT lanes are ever going to catch on with the general public, these leaders have to join the debate. Right now, the discussion in the public is about whether or not tolls can solve congestion. It's not one Metro can win on their own. A massive and organic PR campaign would change the debate and focus people on the positives (clean air, better transit) instead of the costs.

The dispute against Metro's plan (which incidentally, hasn't been completed yet) can usually be traced back to one of four arguments:

1) This is just another tax.
2) This plan will disproportionately help the rich.
3) Drivers already pay too much for roads.
4) The plan (yet to be finished or released) doesn't make any sense.

Each of the four arguments show at least some misunderstanding of what an HOT lane really is, and each will be discussed in future posts.

Recently, I heard someone discussing Metro's plans to add variable toll lanes (HOT lanes) in place of HOV lanes say, "Wealthy people can buy a better ride and would have negative impact on those that can't afford it. 30% of the (City of LA's) population is at poverty level."

This statement wasn't from someone who is ignorant of transportation policies. It was from L.A. City Council Member Richard Alarcón, a former Metro Board Member and current member of the Council's Transportation Committee. Alarcón is the second Council Member (and second member of the Council's 5-person transportation committee) to speak out against HOT Lanes, joining Tom LaBonge.

But does the argument hold true? Are HOT lanes really just special congestion-free roads for the rich? The history of HOT lanes on California roads suggests that any debate over Metro's pricing plans shouldn't be steeped in class warfare.

This may seem counterintuitive to people. Why would people of lesser means be more supportive of a road-pricing plan that makes commutes more expensive for those that wish to drive quickly? Put simply, because most money collected from HOT lanes (although SR-91 is an exception to this rule) goes toward transit projects, and because people of all means prefer having a congestion-free lane in emergencies or special events. HOT lanes, where they have been tried, have been popular with drivers.

SR-90 SR-91 in Orange County has some of the oldest HOT lanes in the country. Studies show that they're used by people of all economic backgrounds. An FHWA report shows that 40% of all vehicles (and probably a higher number of people that travel on the road since carpoolers and transit buses are likely to use HOT lanes) on SR-91 in Orange County are using the HOT lanes to travel.

Just farther South, in San Diego, surveys show that support for HOT lanes is stronger among people of low and moderate circumstances than with people who would be considered well-off.

One organization with a national perspective that helped debunk the "Lexus Lanes" argument is the Democratic Leadership Council. Its report on HOT lanes matched the findings from our two local examples "... studies of HOT lanes have shown that a representative mix of commuters use them, not just the wealthy. Moreover, commuters in the regular lanes benefit from reduced congestion... it is low-to-moderate income commuters who most often encounter the kind of work or family emergencies that can be eased by the ability to occasionally buy a quick commute."

As far as how proceeds from HOT lanes will be used in L.A. County, Metro claims that all profits will be put into transit projects along the corridor where the money is collected. In her most recent "online chat," Metro Board chair Pam O'Connor stated that, "... any money collected -- although this is far from a huge money-making tool -- would be used to increase other transit options along the corridor like van pool subsidies and add more freeway express buses to help everyone move better … especially those who use transit or carpool."

Given California's recent history of spending transportation funds on non-transportation projects, it's natural for people to be skeptical of this claim. Metro can somewhat calm these fears by passing either a resolution affirming the desire to use HOT lane funds for transit, or Metro can put this principle in the final plan that the Board passes this spring. If HOT lanes become a new pool for keeping fares low or funding transit projects, then the benefit to the poor people who are "excluded" from using HOT lanes will far outweigh the cost of having more cars on the non-toll lanes.

Back when opening HOV Lanes was the craze around the country, government officials promised commuters that these new lanes would provide congestion relief for all those who chose to carpool to work (or other destinations) and would reduce congestion for everyone else by encouraging more people to carpool.

While that may have been true at one time, as the population and vehicle miles traveled in Southern California continue to grow, it becomes less and less true every year. Last summer, federal officials reprimanded the State of California because our HOV lanes are too congested. The feds specifically noted that the problem is worse in Los Angeles and Orange counties than in the rest of the state. While handing out 85,000 stickers allowing HOV access to hybrid owners certainly didn't help matters, CALTRANS officials stated that HOV lanes were filling up because the population was growing faster than expected. As this trend continues, even the HOV Lanes that are still providing free-flowing traffic now will get more and more congested.

CALTRANS' first reaction to HOV overcrowding was to crack down on HOV lane cheaters. While this may provide some short term relief, even if CALTRANS managed to clear every cheat out of the lanes, the population growth would again over-crowd the lanes and lead to congestion. Of course, having a tolling system to gain entrance to HOT lanes would eliminate cheating altogether.

Some would argue that the HOV overcrowding is good news. The lanes are overcrowded because more and more people are choosing to commute in car pools and the numbers of single-occupant commuters is going down.

Unfortunately, the numbers don't back that statement up.

The percentage of people who commute via car pooling in Los Angeles County has remained static. According to the U.S. Census, in 2002 12.8% of commuters in LA County commuted by car, but by 2006 that figure fell to 12%. Because neither 2002 nor 2006 were years when a full census was completed, the change in the percent of commuters who chose car pooling is within the margin for error of the survey. The figures for Orange County show a slight increase in both number and percent of commuters who car pool, but that figure is also within the margin for error. (I had to go to and do the math myself; I couldn't find a link that had these numbers. Feel free to double check me.)

In short, despite their popularity, HOV lanes aren't causing single passenger commuters to switch to a carpool.

Metro deserves credit for recognizing that the HOV system around Los Angeles is slowly, but surely, failing. In order to protect its investment (HOV Lanes cost a lot of money)!, and to be able to fulfill their promise of a congestion-free commute for some, Metro decided to look into HOT Lanes, i.e. converting HOV lanes into variable toll lanes with the cost depending on the number of people in the car and the time of day.

This decision has been criticized as being unfair to carpoolers, unfair to hybrid owners and unfair to those people trying to make the most responsible decisions when choosing transportation. While it's unfortunate that LA is growing too quickly for HOV lanes to fulfill the promise of a congestion-free commute for the most-responsible of us, what would be most unfair is a government agency that sees a system that is failing and doesn't do anything about it because the solution might be politically unpopular.

Visit Damien Newton's blog, Street Heat LA, for more on L.A. transportation matters

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