The land of the freeway is poised to become a little less free.
Los Angeles County transit leaders on Thursday agreed to develop plans for toll roads within the next three years, after decades of opposition to the concept of motorists paying tolls to use the roads.
The decision by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board comes amid criticism that Los Angeles has not joined other metropolitan areas around the nation in experimenting with “congestion pricing,” in which motorists pay to use less crowded lanes.
Last month, L.A. County lost out on a major federal grant because it did not have any congestion pricing in the works.
London charges tolls to motorists who drive into the central city during rush hour, a practice New York City is now considering. Closer to home, Orange and San Diego counties have toll roads in which motorists pay for access to less-congested lanes. The toll fee rises based on the amount of traffic, allowing the toll lanes to keep flowing.
And this isn’t pocket change: The toll on the 91 Express Lanes between Orange County and Riverside County approaches $10 eastbound during evening rush hour.
Traditionally, L.A. officials have been cool to congestion pricing, with critics calling it “Lexus Lanes” for the rich.
While Orange County officials have built a network of toll roads to address growing traffic, L.A. officials have invested much more heavily in rail and bus service.
But the county’s worsening traffic -- and the need for more revenue for transit projects -- has changed some minds.
“At some point, we have to reduce the number of single-passenger automobiles if we want to reduce gridlock in L.A. County,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Thursday.
Still, the idea of allowing solo motorists who pay a toll to use carpool lanes is already generating strong opposition from some commuters as well as auto advocacy groups.
“We feel it will be a form of double taxation to charge people for the roads they have already paid for by gas taxes,” said Hamid Bahadori, principal transportation engineer for the Automobile Club of Southern California. “Rather than trying to restrict access, they had better start delivering on the projects.”
Transportation experts said they were surprised that L.A.'s resistance to considering the concept dropped so quickly. They believe it probably was tied to recent revelations that federal officials passed over L.A. for transportation grants because the county’s grant proposal had no congestion pricing component.
“I’ll be darned,” said Genevieve Giuliano, director of the National Center for Metropolitan Transportation Research at USC. “It’s so difficult to get consensus ... to do anything different in Los Angeles.”
Experts said the idea of adding toll lanes to freeways and roads still faces many obstacles. The MTA could face opposition from motorists if it attempts to allow toll riders on existing, already-congested carpool lanes. L.A. has far less vacant land for new roads compared to Orange County and San Diego.
But congestion pricing does offer one highly advantageous element: Transportation agencies can borrow against future toll revenues to finance construction of new roads or lanes.
Additionally, the concept has fans on both the right and the left. Some conservatives like the free-market concept, while some environmentalists believe tolls could prompt more people to take mass transit or carpool.
In ordering transportation officials to draft plans for congestion pricing, the MTA board did not say where such projects would go. But over the last few years, several have been studied or discussed:
* Building truck-only toll lanes along an 18-mile stretch of the 710 Freeway, providing a route for commerce from the port into central Los Angeles.
* Adding toll lanes to a section of the 10 Freeway east of Los Angeles that parallels the El Monte Busway.
* Adding toll lanes to the 110 Freeway south of downtown Los Angeles, which already has a carpool and bus lane down the middle.
* Adding toll lanes along the 105 Freeway, which already has both a carpool lane and the Metro Green Line train going down the middle of it.
Congestion pricing has become increasingly popular with transportation experts across the country in recent years, largely because many believe it’s one way to change behavior -- people driving alone -- and that it’s a market-based approach to keeping traffic moving.
The Bush administration has made congestion pricing a priority of its transportation policy, this year earmarking $130 million in grants to agencies working on toll road-type projects.
Electronic tolls may be one of the few ways to add road capacity in Southern California, where the number of freeway lanes is expected to grow by only 2% by 2035 while the amount of vehicle miles driven is estimated to increase by 36%, according to the MTA.
The problem in L.A. County is space and politics. Widening many of the freeways to accommodate more toll lanes is difficult because of land acquisition issues. And, politically, no one is sure if it’s a good idea to begin charging for carpool lanes that are currently free to those who use them.
Cynthia Storms, 45, of El Segundo said she definitely would pay to use a carpool lane as a solo driver for the price of lighter traffic.
“It’s worth it to have a working road,” said Storms, who owns a small business in El Segundo. “Whenever I get on the 405, no matter what time of day, it’s bad.”
But Edgar Nunez, a West L.A. real estate auditor, is dubious.
“I think there’s a lot of traffic in the carpool lanes already,” he said. “It’s already crowded.”
Times staff writer Tiffany Hsu contributed to this report.
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Charging a toll for those special lanes
What is congestion pricing?
The concept involves charging motorists a toll for using special roads or lanes, often during rush hour when traffic is most congested.
What are the different types of congestion programs?
Many congestion pricing projects involve charging motorists to drive on certain roads or lanes, with the toll varying depending on the level of traffic. London employs a “cordon charge,” in which motorists pay a toll for entering a congested district (the toll is 10 pounds, or about $20). “Areawide charges” involve charging motorists for using all roads in a certain area.
Where is congestion pricing already being used?
In San Diego, there are express lanes on the 15 Freeway, where motorists pay anywhere from $1.50 during off-peak hours to $4 during rush hour. Orange County has the 91 Express Lanes, a 10-mile stretch where tolls range from $1.15 to $9.50, depending on the hour.
Sources: Times reports, Federal Highway Administration