By Tom Rutten, November 22, 2013
There’s probably no regional problem that preoccupies Southern
Californians more or seems more impervious to solution than traffic
That’s because traffic is terrible and getting worse.
Three of America’s busiest highways run through Southern California; the
nation’s most congested urban stretch of interstate is the 405 through
Congestion already distorts our social and economic
decisions on a daily basis. It has imposed new standards of etiquette:
Whether your appointment is with friends for dinner or your physician
for a flu shot, you’re either ridiculously early or unforgivably late.
And everyone understands the reason — traffic. Congestion imposes
economic costs at a staggering level: The average Southern California
commuter annually spends 61 hours, or more than 2.5 days out the only
life they’ll ever live, stuck in traffic. Congestion’s cumulative annual
cost to the greater Los Angeles region is estimated at more than $12
Based on decades of writing about this mess and endless hours
spent talking to the people trying to sort it out, let me propose two
general rules when it comes to dealing with traffic congestion:
Most Southern Californians continue to think that the best solution to
traffic congestion is the one that gets the other guy out of his car so
you can use the freeways unimpeded.
2) All the easy stuff already has been done.
Easy, by the way, doesn’t mean cheap. Consider that, if all the
ambitious — and quite necessary — public transit projects are completed,
including the subway to the sea and the planned light rail extensions
along with the connector under downtown L.A., traffic won’t get any
worse. Mobility won’t get any better, it simply will stop deteriorating —
for a while, at least.
That’s one of the things that has brought about the region’s
increasing flirtation with what the planners call “congestion pricing”
and the rest of us know as toll roads. Orange County is considered a
national model for these projects and greater Los Angeles is
experimenting with them on the 110 and 10 freeways. The late Conor
Cruise O’Brien once remarked, “partition is the last resort of exhausted
statesman.” Congestion pricing is the last resort of utterly baffled
Orange County launched the experiment with toll
highways two decades ago with a pay-to-drive highway for Inland Empire
commuters traveling to and from their jobs in the booming southern
county. By and large, that stretch of toll road has continued to
generate substantial revenue, but many sections of the O.C.’s other 51
miles of pay-to-drive roadway have struggled to attract commuters and
been forced to refinance. Even so, using them isn’t cheap; traveling the
express lanes of the 91 Freeway can run $10 each way during peak
traffic periods. Now, a growing number of Orange County residents and
city officials along a particularly congested stretch of the 405 Freeway
that runs south from Long Beach have told the local transportation
agency that they oppose using public sales tax money to help finance
construction of toll lanes there. Should those lanes be built, consumers
will pay $9.91 for a one-way toll.
The notion that toll roads are a “free market” solution to traffic
congestion was one of the popular rationales advanced for Orange
County’s great experiment with the things. In fact, just last week, Ryan
Chamberlain, Caltrans’ district director for Orange County, told an
interviewer that using the system is “a free-market driven choice, not a
tax.” If it is, it isn’t a very good one. As the Wall Street Journal
reported last week, privately financed toll roads built in emulation of
Orange County’s are going belly up all across the nation. Foreign
investors who provided the capital for the projects in expectation of
constantly rising revenues have been bitterly disappointed. Systems in
Alabama, Michigan, Texas, Indiana and San Diego have had to financially
reorganize or even seek bankruptcy protection.
Apart from the lack of demand, the American highway system is
anything but a free market. A free market is created by private
enterprise and is governed by consumer demand, which makes market forces
the most economically efficient allocator of a particular economic
activity’s benefits. The states’ freeway and turnpike networks are the
children of the federal government’s great interstate highway system,
which was one of the publicly financed pillars of America’s post-war
economic boom. California’s freeway infrastructure was paid for with the
revenues of the gas taxes every driver pays. As such, it is a classic
public amenity — something no one group could have financed on its own —
and not in any sense a market. Tacking stretches of toll road onto such
a system and then nattering piously about “free market solutions” is
intellectual and economic nonsense.
Part of the proof of that is that the major incentive for
constructing toll lanes these days comes in the form of federal transit
grants that are available to transportation agencies willing to
experiment with congestion pricing. Los Angeles Metropolitan
Transportation Agency undertook its experiments on the 10 and 110
Freeways mostly because not doing so would have meant a loss of
available federal money. So much for the free market.
If this state’s transit agencies, including Caltrans, really want to
experiment with congestion pricing why not do it where it’s already been
shown to have inarguable positive results — with commercial truck
traffic. When Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Summer Olympic Games,
deliveries and pickups by truckers were restricted to nights and the
industry voluntarily stayed off the freeways during peak traffic hours.
By some estimates, that alone reduced daylight freeway congestion by as
much as 17 percent. The results were so strikingly clear that, in the
early 1990s, then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley proposed making the
arrangement permanent. The pushback from the trucking industry and the
commercial establishment that insisted it would impose unbearable
additional costs on business quickly scuttled the proposal.
More recently, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have
imposed additional fees on trucks that use their container terminals
during the day. As a result, over the past three years, an estimated 40
percent of the truck traffic coming out of the port has switched to
off-peak hours. The port’s night-time expenses are covered by the fees
collected during daylight hours. Extending such a plan to all the
businesses and manufacturers operating in Southern California actually
would stimulate employment — something we badly need — since employers
would have to hire for a night shift.
It won’t happen because the trucking industry and other business
are organized and can afford to resist. Toll roads and other forms of
congestion pricing shouldn’t be unfairly imposed on commuters just
because they’re not.