Consider LAX as takeoff point for congestion pricing

Times Staff Writer

Attentive readers may have noticed an interesting story in the news last week: The board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority now wants to develop plans for toll roads in Los Angeles County over the next three years.

The timing was curious. Earlier in June, an application from the MTA and other transit agencies in the county had honked out in the first round of a competition for hundreds of millions of federal dollars for toll roads.

The reason: the local proposal sought only to study toll roads, not actually implement them. But the failure in the competition earned the local transit lads some bad press, which may explain last week’s sudden turnaround.


Of course, it’s hard to blame the transit agencies, which answer to local pols, none of whom seemingly want to pull the trigger on a program that would take money from voters’ pockets for using roads that have been free.

As Shakespeare once wrote, “crouch down in fear, and yield.”

Things may be changing. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa voiced support last week for the toll plans. His peers in other cities have pushed tolls and congestion pricing -- under which tolls adjust upward at busy times to discourage traffic -- in recent years and the mayor doesn’t like to be upstaged.

Is there any place in Los Angeles County where congestion pricing would be easy to implement?

What about Los Angeles International Airport?

We promised in this space last week to propose one place where a toll or congestion pricing might work. We’re not saying we’re right, but this is an idea that has been thrown around privately by politicians.

The idea is this: Because there is only one way in and out of the central terminal area at LAX, it would be possible to construct toll booths to charge private vehicles entering the main airport route that leads to the terminals.

Theoretically, the toll to enter the airport would be higher during LAX’s busiest periods. If it worked, the toll might accomplish two goals: discourage people from driving to the airport and raise money for other airport transportation projects.

And it seemingly would be easier to build toll booths than to construct new lanes on freeways.

More than 25.6 million vehicles entered the central terminal area last year, according to LAX officials, although the data don’t show how many of those were private passenger vehicles as opposed to buses, cabs, etc. If a toll were a minimum of $5, and 8 million of those cars were private -- a conservative estimate -- tolling theoretically could raise at least $40 million a year.

It may not even be a tough sell politically. LAX is owned and operated by the city of Los Angeles, but many of its passengers live elsewhere in the region.

But don’t people drive to the airport because there are few alternatives to getting there?


At this time, there is no rail service that is practical, even though the Green Line stops a mile from the airport terminals. The FlyAway bus service is popular but brings passengers from only three areas -- Van Nuys, Union Station and Westwood.

The city wants to add nine more FlyAway bus routes by 2015 because the existing routes have been successful. There also are taxis and a variety of airport shuttles. It doesn’t take a genius to imagine a proposal for the federal funds that would have introduced some type of congestion pricing for the airport and used tolls collected to expand the FlyAway buses throughout the region.

The down side?

Traffic could back up on Century Boulevard behind the toll booths. And it may do nothing to reduce traffic, with people simply accepting the new fee and still driving to LAX in large numbers.

“It’s definitely worth exploring,” said Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose Westside district includes LAX.

Rosendahl then launched into a soliloquy over how the region really needs to spend $100 billion to build a comprehensive mass transit system. He’s right, and then he dropped this nugget: Maybe LAX should charge passengers from Orange County a surcharge because they decided not to build an airport at the former El Toro Marine base.

What do you think? Is it wise planning? Or further proof that a certain reporter has a pair of Pop-Tarts where his brain should be?

Pencils up. It’s quiz time. Which of the following has been named after Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis P. Zine?

A) The annual Dennis P. Zine Fourth of July Fireworks Extravaganza.

B) The future Dennis P. Zine Community Center in Canoga Park.

C) The “Prime Time Zine” television show on the city’s cable channel.

D) The annual Z Awards.

E) The Dennis P. Zine Scholarship Awards.

F) The Dennis P. Zine Headless Mannequin Sculpture Garden.

Answer is below.

During the City Council’s gay pride presentation on Friday, what did Mayor Villaraigosa say about a photo of Councilmen Eric Garcetti and a fully-leathered Zine on a motorcycle at the recent gay pride parade?

A) “This is the kind of nonpartisanship we need to see more often.”

B) “It’s about time they found one another.”

C) “What a beautiful pair they make. What happened to me? A threesome?” Answer also below.

What will happen to Elephant Hill in northeast Los Angeles?

Its fate remains uncertain.

The issue: In the early 1990s, a developer proposed a subdivision for the hills above El Sereno. Although the development was approved, it never got built, and the property traded hands.

Enter Councilman Jose Huizar, who has been under pressure from residents to save the open space remaining in the northeast hills. But the only way for Huizar to slow the project was to require the developer to do a supplemental environmental impact report. (The last one was now over a decade old.)

Huizar -- wisely consulting his political playbook -- was able to delay a decision until after he won reelection in March. The matter came to a vote last month, when the council, by an 8-2 vote, agreed with Huizar that a supplemental report should be done, despite advice from the office of City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo that the first EIR was all that was needed.

Ben Reznik, the developer’s attorney and a Huizar campaign donor, wasn’t happy. He has said the developer may sue and could seek damages that would cost the city a whole lot of money.

What’s the endgame?

That’s the weird part. Huizar got the delay he wanted, but it seems unlikely at this stage to stop the project. “It’s not that the project won’t be done if an impact is found,” Huizar said. The councilman said that, although he supports preserving Elephant Hill as open space with trails, he hasn’t taken any steps to find a buyer for the land that would be interested in not developing it. “I would hope that some interested party would look and possibly acquire this site,” Huizar said.

In the meantime, this column spent some time driving around Elephant Hill and couldn’t find the pachyderm resemblance. But the approximately 15 acres sure are pretty. If you’ve got many millions of bucks sitting around, your time is now.

Answers to above questions: On the first question, the answer is A through E. On the second question, the answer is C.

Next week: Mulling over the gas tax.