It’s expected that the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority will release a study this summer that will offer, reports the Los Angeles Times, “a blueprint for a congestion pricing scheme similar to ones in cities such as London, Stockholm and Singapore, where commuters pay to drive in city centers.”
We’re told the fees would apply to commutes “Along the 10 Freeway between downtown and Santa Monica … On arterial streets and freeways around downtown Los Angeles,” and “Through the canyon streets and freeways that link the San Fernando Valley to West L.A. and the rest of the basin.”
Details, such as when charges would be in effect (what will be considered “peak hours”?), how much drivers will be charged and how much revenue will be generated (isn’t this one of the main reasons behind the idea?) are for now unknown.
This isn’t the first time Los Angeles has floated a congestion-pricing plan, and whatever form the current proposal takes, should it be implemented, it’s sure to be unpopular, a fact that officials are fully aware of. The Los Angeles Times’ Rachel Uranga reports that “agency Chief Executive Stephanie Wiggins asked staffers to hold findings days before public meetings were set to be scheduled early last year. She didn’t want the plans out during the election season, when the issue would have become a political hot potato as seats were up for grabs on the City Council and the Board of Supervisors and for mayor, according to those close to the project at the time, who asked not to be named.”
Nothing like sitting on a controversial proposal to keep voters uninformed during an election.
One argument in favor of congestion pricing: it’s a market solution. But being nudged by policymakers off the streets and into public transit feels a little coercive, a top-down effort to modify behavior.
Either way, transit is simply not an appealing option for many. They can’t afford to waste time on trains and bus trips that can take two, three and even four times longer than driving on clogged roads (which cost Los Angeles about $8.2 billion each year). For these drivers, the government would be in effect fining them for the simple act of commuting to their jobs or driving home at the end of the workday.
Patently anti-market are guidelines for charging drivers based on their incomes. It’s not included in the Los Angeles outline, but the idea was advanced a few years ago in San Francisco’s Downtown Congestion Pricing Study by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. It suggested that the cost for driving in the designated zone would cost be $6.50 for middle- and high-income earners; $4.33 for those in the moderate income bracket; and $2.17 for low-income earners. Drivers with “very-low income” would not be charged.
Even San Franciscans might not be ready to go that far. When California utilities sought state approval a few months ago to charge customers a flat rate based on household income, the public’s reception was not particularly cordial.
Is it overly cynical to think that congestion-pricing plans are not good faith efforts to employ market means to relieve crowded roads? That they’re just another battlefield in Official California’s war on cars? Twenty years ago it would have been. But to believe otherwise today, in the age of street closures, a road diet, fuel tax revenues diverted to public transit, and a hardly disguised hostility toward cars, seems naive.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.