LA Public Transit and The HOV Toll Lane Experiment

A recently released American Public Transportation Association report noted an 18.5 percent increase in ridership on Los Angeles’ light rail system, a testament to the effectiveness of the beautiful new Expo Line. The news signals welcome progress, and the transportation authority should charge full speed ahead with other mass-transit expansions.

Currently, the public transportation system in Los Angeles is woefully underwhelming. Short trips are relatively easy and reliable, but don’t bother trying to navigate several miles unless you’re willing to map out numerous transfers and spend thrice as long as a car would take for most voyages. The inability to travel long distances discourages many from using public transit and contributes to congestion on the roadways. The region’s many attractions are spread out among various areas, and Angelenos drive more miles per person than any other metropolitan area to reach their destinations according to the RAND Corporation.

Many proposals have outlined an astoundingly comprehensive public transit system, and there is no doubt Los Angeles can compete with other world-class cities such as London in this area.

In order to build out new lines, the transit authority must find a strong source of revenue. Voters narrowly defeated measure J in November to extend the sales tax and provide an estimated $30 billion for expansion, and fuel taxes have not kept pace with inflation.

Though the situation seems dire, a new experiment currently underway is the answer to funding the system upgrade. The transit authority has a cash cow under its nose, and it should not hesitate to milk it. In November, toll lanes popped up along the Harbor Freeway and the San Bernardino Freeway in Los Angeles County for a one-year trial. Not only should the experiment continue along these corridors, but the project should also be expanded to include all freeways within the county that already have HOV lanes.

The toll lanes do not alter the current state of affairs on the roadway; they only improve them. High-occupancy vehicles are still able to use the express lanes free of charge, provided they install a Fastrak transponder on their vehicle that can be purchased for $40. Thus, residents are still encouraged to carpool and cut down on their carbon footprint. Meanwhile, single drivers are now allowed to drive in the express lanes for a variable fee.

Opening up the lanes to all drivers maximizes the use of existing roadways. Single drivers moving into the toll lanes exert a positive externality on other drivers because more space is available in the regular lanes.  The result is a faster commute as the traffic load achieves a greater balance.

Based on congestion, solo drivers pay between $.25 and $1.40 per mile to utilize the lanes. The project, which covers a small fraction of the freeway system, is expected to generate nearly $20 million in revenue per year. A countywide implementation would surely rake in hundreds of millions of dollars.

Initial reception to the experiment was overwhelmingly negative. However, the lanes have operated without a hitch, and case studies of other congestion pricing initiatives suggest that residents will soon warm to the concept.

Critics of the plan have had two main complaints. They denounce it as simply another tax that robs hard-working constituents of their pay. I don’t disagree that some initiatives in this city have been thinly veiled money grabs, but this is a well-researched plan based on several commissioned studies. The transit authority has been left with a dearth of options, and the money is not being used to pad employee salaries or cover pension expenses. Instead, it is being reinvested in infrastructure to fund extremely beneficial projects.

In addition, opponents denounce the creation of a two-tiered commuting system because people with higher incomes are more likely to pay the tolls. To combat income inequality issues, the transportation authority has offered discounted rates for low-income drivers and provided other initiatives to level the playing field.

Above all, the transit authority is not forcing anyone to pay the fee to use the lane. They are simply offering an option to motorists who value the convenience of a faster commute. Anyone opposed to the fee can continue to use the lanes they used to free of charge.

By implementing this innovative approach, elected officials will vastly improve public transit routes and take a major step towards combatting the severe traffic problem in Los Angeles. Study after study decries the congestion on the region’s roadways, and it consumes precious time, pollutes the air, hinders fuel economy, and stresses drivers out. Our quality of life suffers drastically.

Los Angeles stands among the greatest cities in the world. Shouldn’t its transit system reflect its gleaming reputation?