Tolls on freeways a tough sell

Times Staff Writer

Tim Wolfe lives in West Covina, in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley. As an electronics salesman, his territory is the distant San Fernando Valley, miles to the west.

By his own count, Wolfe spends about half of his workday in his car. The other half is spent with customers. Wolfe seemed the perfect candidate for this hypothetical question:

If the carpool lane on local freeways were converted to a toll lane that guaranteed him a zippier commute, would he pay -- especially if the money went to more mass transit to get cars off the freeway?

“I would use it, but not in every case,” he said. “Because I can afford it and I can appreciate the time saved. But I don’t believe for a second” -- because of past misuses of transit funds -- “that the money is going to be used for some grand purpose.”


The official term for this scenario is congestion pricing. And it could be coming to Los Angeles County soon. Officials here are seeking federal money to put toll lanes initially on three freeways, including the 210 and 10 in the San Gabriel Valley and the 110 south of downtown. The 60 Freeway is next on the list.

The tolls would vary by time of day and be highest during rush hour. Single-occupant cars would probably pay the most to use the lanes.

The local effort got a boost last week when New York City probably forfeited $354 million in federal money after state pols refused to approve a plan to charge an $8 toll to cars entering lower Manhattan. The idea was to reduce air pollution from idling traffic and raise nearly $500 million for mass transit.

So that money is back into play. “It’s no secret of our interest in Los Angeles,” Tyler Duvall, an acting undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation, told me recently. “L.A. is viewed as a really large example of other cities” -- and, he added, could be a proving ground for congestion pricing.


Why is congestion pricing so popular with transportation officials these days? Think of it this way: To board a bus, you must pay a fare. Many officials think the same should apply to roads, because current gasoline taxes are indirect fees that are insufficient to pay for road fixes. And, besides, gas tax money has been known to disappear into black holes when government runs short on cash.

As a result, many locales are turning to congestion pricing to finance -- key phrase here -- new toll lanes.

But the proposal for Los Angeles would put congestion pricing on existing carpool lanes, which have a capacity of about 1,650 vehicles per hour, according to Caltrans. Put more cars in them and speeds deteriorate.

In the view of many readers, that’s the problem. Caltrans data show that many carpool lanes are already carrying 1,200 to 1,400 vehicles per hour during rush hour -- enough to turn traffic into the same stop-start-scream flows as in the regular lanes. There just isn’t that much room to sell more space, unless the fees are so high that current users are scared back into the regular lanes, off the freeway altogether or into changing the time of their commute.

If the proposal were for the whole freeway, that would be a different story (and a lot more controversial, too!). But in this case, even if one lane flows better, the rest will probably remain stuck, doing their part to promote global warming. So, few are excited -- even people begging for traffic relief.

Take Marion Jewell, who works in sales for Northwest Airlines and commutes each day from Valley Village to LAX on the 405. It’s at least an hour’s drive each way, and although Jewell doesn’t have to be at work until 8:30 a.m., she tries to arrive by 7:30 to avoid the very worst jams.

But Jewell says she wouldn’t be able to pay a toll, even if the carpool lanes on the 405 were completed. Money is tight. And one lane, she thinks, wouldn’t make a difference for a problem as big and intractable as the 405.

“I don’t think it’s going to change anything to charge a toll,” she said.


Problem solved

You may recall our recent story about Renee Jacobs, who got a $50 ticket for parking in a spot at Runyon Canyon Park in Los Angeles that was signed as both legal and illegal. L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge said last week that Jacobs was getting her money back, and the signs would be fixed to allow parking during the day, which has been legal all along.