For years, Southern California lawmakers have tried to steer clear of decisions that make driving more expensive or miserable, afraid of angering one of their largest groups of constituents.

But now, transportation officials say, congestion has become so bad in Los Angeles County that politicians have no choice but to contemplate charging motorists more to drive – a strategy that has stirred controversy but helped cities in other parts of the world tame their own traffic.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is pushing to study how what’s commonly referred to as congestion pricing could work in L.A., including converting carpool lanes to toll lanes, taxing drivers based on the number of miles they travel, or charging a fee to enter certain neighborhoods and business districts.

Imposing more tolls would offer a smoother drive for those who choose to pay. Getting more drivers off the road could free space to speed up bus service, while the billions of dollars in revenue could fund a vast expansion of the transit network, Metro said.

But a shift from mostly free driving in Southern California, where 75 percent of commuters drive alone to work, would require courageous politicians who are willing to champion the policy, explain it to outraged motorists and stand by it if the implementation gets rocky, experts say.

“It challenges what Angelenos see as their God-given right to drive anywhere they want,” said Manuel Pastor, director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California. “It would be a challenging shift in a city that’s very much a car culture and an individual culture.”

Next month, Metro’s board of directors will be asked to approve a study and assemble a panel of experts to examine how congestion pricing would work. The process would take about two years, Metro said.

It’s one of many strategies transportation officials are considering to pay for the construction of 28 transit and highway projects before the 2028 Summer Olympic Games.

Twenty of the projects are scheduled to be finished within the decade. Metro would need an additional $26.2 billion to build the other eight projects by then.

Using congestion pricing would be by far the most lucrative strategy. According to agency estimates, a per-mile tax on driving could raise $102 billion over a decade, while a fee to enter downtown could raise $12 billion.

“This is the eradication of congestion,” said Metro Chief Executive Phil Washington, who said the benefits would reach beyond 2028. “This is sending out a message to the world that Los Angeles County is doing something about its traffic.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the Olympics transit and highway projects should be “disentangled” from the question of congestion pricing.

He said Metro can close the $26.2 billion gap by pursuing federal funds and other financing strategies to build on the money raised through Measure M, the sales tax increase voters approved in 2016.

“I don’t yet support any particular proposal or congestion pricing as a philosophy,” Garcetti said. “But if it can work and if it can help us achieve our goals … I think it’s a conversation worth starting. I’m going to push very strongly to do that.”

A modest form of congestion pricing is already in place on the 110 and 10 freeways, where drivers who are alone in their cars can pay by the mile to use carpool lanes. As congestion in the lanes rises, so do the tolls, to a maximum of more than $20 for a one-way trip.

Expanding those lanes to other freeways would be a first step toward a more complete pricing system, said Martin Wachs, a professor emeritus of urban planning at UCLA. That change would help regulate traffic flow.


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