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Study: Congestion pricing could reduce Westside rush hour travel times by 24 percent

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Under the study’s scenario, chargers would be charged a $4 toll

The study focuses on a 4.3-mile area that includes parts of Sawtelle, Brentwood, West LA, and Santa Monica.
By 4kclips / Shutterstock

Afflicted by some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation, the streets and freeways of Los Angeles’s Westside routinely resemble narrow parking lots during busy commute hours.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, according to a new report on congestion pricing from the Southern California Association of Governments.

The report finds that charging drivers a toll to enter the area during peak traffic hours could shave down travel times, boost local transit use, and improve air quality.

The study focuses on a 4.3-mile “mobility go zone” covering parts of Sawtelle, Brentwood, and Santa Monica. The area covers most of the space between the 405 freeway to 20th Street, and from the 10 freeway to Sunset Boulevard (though the northern boundary in Santa Monica is Montana Avenue).

In this zone, drivers would be charged a $4 fee during periods of peak traffic, though residents of the area would benefit from a 90 percent discount and low-income drivers would pay half price.

In the study’s hypothetical system, local transit agencies would also invest in improved bus service and shuttles to connect riders to the Expo Line.

The report concludes that these measures would significantly decrease the amount of time people spend traveling in cars by roughly 24 percent during peak travel hours, and almost 10 percent over the course of a full day. This amounts to a collective 5.3 million hours of time saved throughout the year.

Part of the predicted reduction in rush hour traffic is because of an expected uptick in traffic levels during other parts of the day, when drivers with more flexible schedules would likely plan to make trips in and out of the zone.

But the study's authors suggest that tolls are likely to convince other drivers to walk, bike, or take transit to their destinations instead. They predict at least a 7 percent increase in the number of people using each of these modes of travel during rush hour periods. Car use in periods of peak congestion is projected to drop 19 percent.

The report, which will be presented next week to SCAG’s transportation committee, comes just a month after Metro’s Board of Directors ordered a study on a potential toll system in LA County.

Metro CEO Phil Washington argued in December that introducing fees for drivers could both cut down on gridlock and fund key Los Angeles transportation projects—as well as making it possible for the agency to offer free fares for transit riders.

Washington also suggested the idea could provide environmental benefits, a sentiment supported in the report.

Amanda Eaken, director of transportation and climate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told reporters on Wednesday that a congestion pricing system like the one analyzed in the study could help California meet its climate and air quality goals by pushing drivers to use other modes of travel.

The pricing system could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 20 percent within the study area during peak hours, according to Annie Nam, SCAG’s manager of goods movement and transportation finance.

The only problem? The notion of congestion pricing isn’t at all popular with residents.

Poll numbers from a recent UCLA study suggest that less than 40 percent of Los Angeles voters would support a congestion pricing policy in the city.

Poll numbers like these, along with common reservations about the fairness of road pricing (which affects lower earning drivers far more than wealthy ones), help to explain why such a policy has so far never been comprehensively implemented in any U.S. city.

“This is not going to be politically easy,” said Metro’s chief innovation officer, Joshua Schank, on a press call Wednesday. “We have to be confident that when we really get out there and talk to people, do the outreach, and get the conversation going, that people will eventually support an outcome that stands to benefit them.”

The proposal outlined in the study has already drawn criticism from Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents part of the area examined in the report.

In a series of tweets Thursday, Bonin argued that the study area lacks “robust transit alternatives,” and called the proposed fee structure “downright unjust.”

SCAG interim director Darin Chidsey says Angelenos skeptical of the idea might simply need to see it in action.

“When it’s been implemented, and when people see it work, their attitudes change dramatically,” he says. “They say, ‘oh, well I couldn’t have imagined that future.’”