Should We Pay to Drive in Downtown?

DTLA—It will be years until Los Angeles gets into a thorough discussion of congestion pricing, but drivers should be aware that the idea is rolling forward. When the talk begins in earnest, you can expect that just as Downtown is at the center of the region, it will also be at the center of the conversation.

Although some people will complain mightily about the concept of being charged to drive into the heart of the city, the current gridlock — in Downtown that’s no longer just a rush-hour condition — and air quality concerns make it a topic that demands an extensive analysis. Congestion pricing has been implemented in cities including London and Stockholm. It’s time to explore whether and how it would work in a metropolis as progressive and environmentally aware as Los Angeles.

The key word is “explore,” and as Metropolitan Transportation Authority CEO Phil Washington made clear recently, Angelenos will not soon be charged for where or how much they drive. “We’re not talking about starting congestion pricing tomorrow,” he said at a luncheon hosted by the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum. “We’re talking about asking the [Metro] board to allow us to pursue congestion pricing.”

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The board gave that approval on Feb. 28, allowing Metro to begin a feasibility study. This will take 12-24 months and should be viewed as an incremental step: The study ideally will detail where a pilot program could take place. That would involve some type of congestion pricing along with providing transit options such as (but not limited to) vastly increased bus service. That pilot study would inform any decision about a greater congestion pricing plan.

At this time there are more questions than answers, including how long a pilot study would last and which of three congestion pricing models would be implemented. There’s the Cordon Model (now in play in London), where drivers pay a fee for going into a certain area; the Corridor Model, with a price charged for traveling a specific path at a certain time (a version of this already exists on the 110 Freeway); and the Vehicle Miles Traveled Model, where a fee is incurred after a driver hits a set distance.

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Whatever model is selected, whether for a pilot study or a permanent program, Downtown will almost certainly be the most impacted community. This is the jobs center of L.A. County and a growing residential, cultural and nightlife hub. Tens of thousands of additional people are projected to move here in future decades, meaning there is the potential for much worse traffic.

It’s worth noting that congestion pricing is about changing behavior rather than raising revenue. It relies on looking for the point at which it becomes economically difficult for someone to get into the car. That sparks concern about the impact on low-income drivers, a topic that also must be explored in the pilot study.

Many people won’t like the idea of being charged more to drive, but Los Angeles is not so special that we can avoid what is happening in other premier cities. It’s time to weigh the pros and cons of congestion pricing.

Copyright 2019 Los Angeles Downtown News