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Metro will recommend moving forward with congestion pricing, says CEO

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Could tolls on drivers solve LA’s traffic problem?

Downtown LA freeway
A congestion pricing policy would charge drivers to use busy roads during peak hours.
J Dennis/Shutterstock

Metro CEO Phil Washington told members of the transit agency’s congestion, highway and roads committee on Wednesday that staffers would recommend pursuing “some form” of congestion pricing at a meeting of the Board of Directors next week.

A congestion pricing policy, in which drivers are charged for using traffic-clogged roadways during peak hours, could have huge ramifications for commuters in the nation’s most gridlocked urban area.

Last month, Washington suggested that funds raised through a congestion-based toll system could be used to fast-track major transit projects in time for the 2028 Olympics and to subsidize free fares on Metro trains and buses.

Washington was similarly enthusiastic Wednesday about the potential of congestion pricing to both ease traffic and get cars off the road.

“We’re talking about saving mankind here,” he said. “This is no small thing.”

In a presentation for the committee, UCLA urban planning professor Michael Manville said that congestion pricing is the only method proven to improve traffic in major cities where it’s been employed (including London, Singapore, and Stockholm).

Manville compared LA’s current traffic conditions to a Black Friday sale.

“The only time you ever go to a store and they’re out of goods and there’s a huge line of people battling to get them,” he said, “is when that store intentionally holds prices down.”

By providing free access to roadways at all times, Manville argued, local officials drive up demand for busy streets and freeways.

But charging for something that’s now free isn’t likely to be popular with many residents, as committee chair John Fasana pointed out Wednesday.

“It really does create a policy dilemma,” said Fasana. “It’s a concept that is not popular, but also I think when you look at it in the context of demand and supply, it might be the least costly way of managing demand.”

Several committee members expressed concerns about the equity of a congestion pricing system, pointing out that such policies are regressive—that is, they benefit wealthy drivers who can pay for faster commutes, while hurting poorer residents who can’t afford the tolls.

Manville said this could be addressed by setting aside revenue raised through the pricing system to fund assistance programs for low-income drivers.

“There’s no reason that couldn’t be done with congestion pricing, and I would say it absolutely would have to be done,” he told the committee.

Washington did not fully reveal Wednesday what staff would recommend to the board next week, but said that an advisory council should be formed to further investigate how a congestion pricing policy would work in Los Angeles.

No urban area in the United States has implemented a comprehensive congestion pricing policy, though New York Governor Andrew Cuomo suggested this week that a long-discussed congestion pricing plan for New York City could be approved as soon as this year.