Could Congestion Tolls on Roads Mean Free Metro Transport for All?

And, if so, will Angelenos take that deal?

Last week, Metro CEO Phil Washington endorsed a bold proposal: implement congestion tolls on drivers to make public transportation free. If the proposal moves forward, it would fit into a number of projects Metro has in the works, which all aim to turn Los Angeles into a seamless public transportation utopia before the Olympics come to town.

“We think that with congestion pricing done right, we can be the only city in the world to offer free transit service in time for the 2028 Olympics,” Curbed reports Washington said during his presentation to the Metro Board of Directors.

Washington presented three possible approaches to establishing a congestion pricing scheme. Cordon pricing would create a perimeter around a particular location, and charge dynamically fluctuating prices to cross the border. This system, similar to the congestion fees that have been charged to enter central London since 2003, would generate an estimated $12 billion a year, according to Metro. There’s also corridor pricing, which would identify certain high-traffic roads and set up something kind of like the existing Express Lanes system, but which would apply to every lane, not just the express. This plan, which could net $52 billion, would only be used on roads where there is a “viable public transit alternative.”

The third option, which could generate 103.5 billion dollars, would be VMT Pricing. VMT stands for “vehicle miles traveled.” Drivers could go on any route they liked, and an in-car tracking device would log the miles, which could be billed at a flat or dynamic per-mile cost. VMT fee systems have been adopted in a number of European nations, but primarily for commercial truck drivers, rather than passenger cars, though a 2007 pilot study in Oregon deemed the idea of a VMT fee “feasible.”

While it appears to have the greatest upside for Metro’s coffers, rolling out a VMT fee could be the most difficult, as it would require the development and adoption of a technology solution by every participating driver, and questions have been raised over privacy concerns regarding what would be done with all that data being collected. Depending on how it was implemented, it could also only end up charging local drivers who have the on-board device, and not charging visitors in town for something like, say, the Olympics.

At the presentation, Washington expressed that the corridor pricing model would be his first choice, and that his idea would be for public transit alternatives to driving to be free of charge, both during the Olympics and indefinitely afterwards, subsidized in part by revenue from the congestion fees.

StreetsBlog L.A. commentator Joe Linton suggests that bringing up the congestion pricing proposal may be something of a negotiating tactic by a cash-strapped Metro that has been asked to speed up a lot of work in time for 2028. “Asked to fund ’28 by 2028,’ Washington turned around and put things back in the board’s lap,” Linton writes. “He basically said if you want acceleration, you have to do something bold. He and his staff then tossed the proverbial bunch of spaghetti on the wall to see what would stick.”

Then again, compared to the other “spaghetti” Washington tossed out, congestion pricing starts to make sense. Other funding options would include requesting federal money, which Donald Trump is against; delaying electric buses, which Mayor Eric Garcetti is against; selling naming rights to stations, which County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl is against; cities handing their Measure M funds over to Metro, which the cities are against; or borrowing more money, which the Metro Board is against.

Finding the budget to cover Olympics-related projects is also only the short-term goal. Congestion pricing could be a stab at some big ideas, including cutting back on pollution to slow climate change and making a meaningful reduction to L.A.’s traffic. The theory goes that, as driving becomes more expensive, fewer people will choose that as their way to get around, particularly if public transportation alternatives are free and accessible.

RELATED: Can Metro Really Complete These Rail Projects Before the ’28 Olympics?

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