When Phil Washington, CEO of the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, asked that we “Re-Imagine Los Angeles”—as his proposal to the Metro Board last December is now called—he linked the possibility of introducing congestion pricing with making transit free and more frequent in LA County.
While the idea of drivers having to pay to drive in some places at some times may alarm more than some Angelenos, the idea that the revenue could be used to make transit free and frequent is intriguing, to say the least. It suggests maybe we can eradicate congestion without waiting for land use changes (more housing near jobs and transit, etc.) to get us there, and fix Metro’s declining ridership. This has never been tried in the U.S.
Congestion pricing was originally proposed in response to a request from Metro’s Board of Directors that CEO Washington find a way to pay for the acceleration of 8 of the 28 projects the board wants completed before the 2028 Olympics, at a cost of $26.2 billion. The other 20 projects were already scheduled for completion by 2028.
But concerns have been expressed about both congestion pricing and completing 28 projects by 2028, in part because pricing could hit low-income drivers hard. Metro and its boardmembers have all committed to prioritizing equity should congestion pricing be implemented, though how that will be done has not been decided.
Free and frequent transit—and an expanded bus system—could be an antidote, with attendant benefits including reduced GHG emissions, and relief from the public health burden on residents who live near heavily trafficked freeways as well as the public safety threat to pedestrians and bicyclists.
The interest expressed by the LA Times and by Metro’s Board of Directors, with caveats of course, indicates that free and more frequent transit might be the sugar that could make the medicine of congestion pricing go down. The Metro Board voted last week to move forward with a 12-24 month study.
Move LA spoke with CEO Washington on Feb. 12. These are some of the things he said in the interview:
“It’s mind-blowing to think about what congestion pricing could allow us to do. The sky would be the limit. It’s not a money grab. We also have to think also of the environmental and public health benefits. I simply do not see a downside to saying yes to congestion pricing.”
“A lot of people have expressed concerns about the equity impacts, and yes I wholeheartedly support making equity the front and center issue. But it’s very important that people understand there’s nothing equitable about the current transportation system. Cars are very expensive to own and operate. And it’s black and brown low-income people who breathe in the most emissions from freeways. Moreover, low-income people work 2 or sometimes 3 jobs to make ends meet, and traffic congestion makes that very difficult.”
“I am convinced the best way to get rid of traffic congestion is through congestion pricing. Only a few cities in the world have tried it. When London began congestion pricing it was opposed by 70% of the people. Now that it’s been in place for several years 80% support it.”
“This really is an opportunity to change the way we live in Los Angeles. The revenue stream could be large enough—depending on the type of congestion pricing and how widely we employ it—that it could also fund free transit. And it would guide drivers—and employers—toward the right decisions about when to get on the road.”
“Reducing congestion is part of our mission as a transit agency. This strategy can make it possible for us to achieve our mission. But the other half of the congestion equation is providing the transit alternative. Which we are able to do because of Measure M.”
“It’s clear that this plan to move forward has to be phased in, beginning with a study and then a pilot project. Because I fully believe that—as in London—the pilot will be so successful that people will want more.”
“Once congestion pricing is implemented the next step will be to increase transit options and make transit free. Together with congestion pricing this will help make biking and walking safer and reduce air pollutions and GHG emissions—which might be considered unintended but critically important benefits as well as an inheritance to leave for our children. We have built the greatest transportation infrastructure in the world, which helped make our nation great, but we have not continued to update and take care of it.”
“Free transit would also start with a pilot. Maybe it could begin with seniors and people with disabilities. Maybe we could provide free transit for community college students. We did make transit free on election day last November and during the teachers’ strike, and in the past we have made it free on Earth Day. Each time we netted a ridership increase of about 6-7%. Transportation is the 2nd highest household expenditure after the rent or mortgage. So making transit free would have a real impact.”
“At Metro we have been thinking about congestion pricing for a long time—we recommended an exploration in our Strategic Vision Plan, approved by the board last year. It’s one reason I created the Office of Extraordinary Innovation, and they will write the scope for a feasibility study. If the board says ‘Go’ on February 28—and the board has been, for the most part, supportive—we’ll start exploring the options, which could yield between $12 billion and as much as $104 billion over a decade, depending on what kind of congestion pricing, how much it costs, and how widely it is deployed.”
“We are the most populous county in America, we own the most vehicles, and we are innovative—no other agency has partnered with the private sector on microtransit and partnerships such as the one we’ve just begun with Getaround, a car-sharing program to help people get to and from 37 stations. We’re making scooters part of our first-last-mile strategy. And we are committed to setting standards including a guaranteed 20-minute ride from downtown LA to LAX. We are committed to stepping into a big leadership void in transportation when it comes to congestion. It is our mission.”