Is a toll too much to ask?

Today, Gordon and Reed discuss the effectiveness of converting some carpool lanes into toll lanes. Later in the week, they’ll debate the impact of population growth on transportation, congestion pricing in Los Angeles and more.

The unfairness of not charging tolls
By Peter Gordon

Some very smart people have trouble agreeing on the meaning of “fair.” Nevertheless, not pricing road access is demonstrably unfair. Why is that?

First, we know that if price does not ration, something else will. When we refuse to price highway access, rationing of available road space is done by overcrowding, and everyone complains about the resulting congestion. It’s the urge to “do something” in these cases that causes many of the problems. Only pricing would affect traffic, but we refuse to charge tolls, so we try everything else -- and the more grandiose, the better. In Los Angeles, we try rail transit and carpool lanes. Leaving aside the fact that neither has had any impact on highway conditions, what do we get?

In 1985, transit use in Los Angeles County hit its peak with just under 500 million bus boardings. Then we started building expensive rail lines. We are not yet back to 1985 levels of transit use -- even though we have added more than 1.5 million new residents, most of them at the low-income, transit-using end. We have also spent billions more on transit. In fact, we raised bus fares in 1985 to pay help pay for rail, and in the process kicked millions of riders off the bus system. Adding up the years 1985 to now, we have spent billions of dollars to lose billions of bus riders. How smart is that? How fair is that? Bus rider groups and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People have had to go to court to get some bus service restored.

Have carpool lanes increased carpooling? There is no evidence they have. Some have referred to carpool lanes as family-pool lanes. When we carpool with non-driving kids and the elderly, are we really taking any cars off the road? Again, billions spent by the public with nothing to show.

So where are we now? It is “unfair” to price road access but “fair” to proceed as we have? Not far away, on State Route 91 in Orange County and on stretches of Interstate 15 in San Diego County, freeway use has been priced for years. Even the early critics who dubbed the toll lanes “Lexus lanes” have backed off. The experience is that people from practically all walks of life have paid to use these lanes, either regularly or on occasion. Many have thought it worth a few dollars to get an extra hour with their kids before going to sleep. Some self-employed business people pay to save time so they can do an extra job during their day.

Forgoing the pricing option leads to trouble, but some always believe they can resort to something “fairer” instead. They never have.

Peter Gordon is a professor in USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development.

A bad way to spend $214 million
By Bart Reed


Roads have always been an interesting element in the marketplace, but are they fair? Tons of resources are wasted to pave over vast expanses of land to connect to suburban sprawl centers. They enable a relative few to drive from their homes to work, shopping areas or recreational events -- trips far too few in number to sustain frequent, local bus services. Such sprawl creates lengthy work commutes and forces way too many cars to take up scarce freeway capacity, leading to our perpetual gridlock.

Creating a series of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes could result in a disaster or, if done correctly, a welcome solution. The Transit Coalition supports HOT, or express-lane, additions where feasible and wants to encourage the use of pricing options to finance new highway capacity, not to jam mixed-flow freeways or take away carpool lanes, which the MTA proposes.

The MTA wants to replace portions of the carpool lanes on the 10 and 210 freeways with toll lanes. It is crazy to punish carpoolers -- who save fuel, reduce congestion and pollute less -- on two of the most successful carpool lanes in the nation by forcing them into adjacent lanes.

Peter, the Rapid Transit District (which preceded the current MTA) lowered its bus fares by nearly 40% in 1984 to encourage increased ridership during the Olympics. The numbers you cite do not include other L.A. County carriers, and since 1985, bus fares have been raised at a rate far less than inflation to pay for the increased costs of equipment, infrastructure, wages and fuel.

Transit usage in L.A. County has actually grown by 40% since 2000, far greater than the county’s population gain over the last eight years. Nationally, carpool rates have fallen; conversely, rates have actually stayed the same in Southern California. According to the California Department of Transportation and data collected by the Freeway Performance Measurement System (PDF), highways with carpool lanes tend to carry cars that have higher occupancy rates and result in fewer automobiles on the road -- a reality far different from the “family pool” phenomenon you cite, Peter.

Regarding the 91 and 15 freeways, priced lanes were added;they did not replace any existing capacity. Mark Pisano, former executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, once used the term “Lexus lanes” because time means money, so the time of those drivers who make more money has a greater value to society. The 91 and 15 express lanes are available not to the occasional motorist, but only to regular users with expensive transponders, so why do proponents claim that such toll lanes are available to all? HOT lanes and demand-based pricing are perfect candidates to be included in capacity-improvement projects such as the High Desert Corridor (which would link 14 Freeway in Palmdale to I-15 in Victorville), the proposed I-710 tunnel underneath South Pasadena and extending the 91 express lanes into Riverside County.

Peter, I don’t see how you can defend the MTA’s plan for the 210 and 10 freeways given the negative results that will surely arise. The $214 million that Washington will award the MTA for implementing the toll-lane plan is half of what it would cost to extend the Gold Line light rail down the 210 corridor, a more worthwhile project. Instead, the MTA will now install toll-collection points on our carpool lanes, forcing carpoolers out and gouging drivers up to $10 to drive in the lanes they’ve already paid for. With your logic, and gas about to cost more than $4 a gallon, is it unreasonable to predict that more people than ever will use carpool lanes? Working Americans, women with children, construction-worker crews, carpoolers, vanpools, transit users or just folks sharing a ride to business meetings would be hurt by the MTA’s plan.

Peter, the MTA should use the $214 million to put people to work -- during what already appears to be the worst recession since the 1980s -- to build the shelf-ready, capacity-enhancing Gold Line along the 210 Freeway. You are right: Things aren’t “fairer.”

Bart Reed is executive director of the Transit Coalition, a Sylmar-based nonprofit organization dealing with issues of transportation, mobility and land use planning.

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