It’s time to go with toll-lane flow

The madness, the misery, the stress.

Take the typically unbearable traffic and add a little rain, like Southern California got Friday, and 15 million people are ready to blow a gasket.

Two and a half hours to get from Simi Valley to downtown Los Angeles. Midday SigAlerts on the Harbor Freeway south and the 210 in Pasadena, to name just two.

If nothing else, it was a good day to consider a proposal by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to turn carpool lanes on some of the area’s highways into toll lanes for the sake of relieving congestion.


Will it ever happen?

If so, can it work?

Maybe and maybe, said MTA board member David Fleming.

“Everything’s got to be on the table now,” said the chief of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

The MTA is developing a plan to create toll lanes on Interstate 10’s El Monte Busway and the Harbor Freeway Transitway and along the 210 between the 605 and 134. A solo driver could use the carpool lane for a fee, which would be charged through an electronic monitoring system. No toll booths, in other words.

At a later date, the Pomona Freeway, the San Bernardino Freeway and the eastern portion of the 210 could get the same treatment.

Good idea or bad?

Readers always want to run me out of town for saying this, but I’ll say it again:

Toll lanes are no panacea, but they should be one small part of a comprehensive plan to reduce congestion.

I’d even go a step further and find places in Southern California to implement the kind of congestion-relief pricing used in central London, where everyone entering the city by car pays a toll.

The idea of tolling and congestion pricing is to charge the highest fees during rush hours, which not only encourages off-peak travel, but can improve transit options for everyone by creating revenue for additional bus or train service, or for more roads.

But are MTA officials really serious? Or are they simply trying to avoid the kind of bashing they got for missing out on federal toll road funds last time around, when they were asleep at the wheel and didn’t even apply? Other regions of the country, where leaders were much quicker on their feet, have already feasted on $850 million in federal funds to convert carpool lanes into carpool/toll lanes.

Let’s say the MTA manages to actually get some of the scraps still left on the table. Would the board then have the guts to tell commuters they’ll have to pay if they want to make better time getting to work or to an airport or ballgame?

I have my doubts. When you think about local leadership, the term “profiles in courage” does not immediately pop into your head.

With politicians rubber-stamping one ill-conceived mega-development after another, putting people farther and farther from where they work, the population has exploded in Southern California. But road capacity hasn’t. And yet the gas tax, which is supposed to pay for new asphalt, remains flatter than the top of Gray Davis’ head. Speaking of which, the last two governors have raided transportation funds, even as roads crumble.

In other words, we’ve brilliantly designed the nation’s worst traffic, and there’s not enough state and federal money to pay for even a fraction of the projects on the wish lists of the MTA and other transportation authorities. The subway to the sea? It’s not even a dream. It’s a hallucination.

Tolling is one of the last options for raising a few bucks. And Hasan Ikhrata, the transportation guru for the Southern California Assn. of Governments, seemed encouraged by the MTA’s gesture.

But he pointed out that toll roads don’t relieve congestion on highways that are already at capacity or beyond. In fact, they could make traffic worse for those who don’t pay their way into the premium lane.

The place where it might work best, Ikhrata said, is on the Harbor Freeway Transitway, which is not currently at capacity.

Duarte Councilman and MTA board member John Fasana embraces tolling but admits the details are tricky.

The MTA still has to figure out how much to charge for access to less-congested roadways, how many passengers a carpool vehicle would need to legally use those lanes and what to do with any money that’s raised.

Jim Kirchner, who lives in Duarte and travels to his job as a business consultant in Pasadena, isn’t sure he’d be willing to pay a toll, or whether a toll would do any good on the 210.

“The carpool lane isn’t always going faster than the regular lanes,” Kirchner said.

His 13-mile commute takes 30 to 60 minutes, and he sometimes gives up on the 210 and uses Foothill Boulevard. If more drivers take that option to avoid traffic and tolls, surface streets may be as gridlocked as they are on the Westside of L.A.

Rob Martin, an independent real estate developer who lives in Santa Monica and travels the region by car, told me he’d be willing, reluctantly, to pay tolls. If it cost, say, $8 to cut the drive time from downtown Los Angeles to LAX in half, he’d pony up.

“But in general, I don’t think we can trust the government to actually steward the use of those funds,” said Martin. “We passed a bond measure for transit improvements, and they took that money and pushed it over to a billion other uses.”

If any of this is going to work, the MTA gang has to do a bang-up job of selling it as a benefit to everyone, not just those who can pay for what will no doubt be called Lexus lanes. That means winning a few friends in Washington and Sacramento, getting more regional cooperation, and explaining how tolling fits into a grand scheme that offers nannies, dishwashers, students and professionals some much-needed relief, whether they travel by car, bus or train.

Should we extend the Gold Line, expand the fleet of buses, add roadway where possible, build a separate tollway along the 710 for trucks or double the size of the crew now clearing highway accidents?

Come on, none of this would be easy, but neither is it impossible. Charge people more to drive, and use the money to design a system that offers more options, speeds the journey and is the envy of the world.

If we don’t, it won’t be much longer -- given projected population growth -- before Friday’s traffic fiasco will be the norm, rain or shine.