New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Nov 17, 2012
GARDENA, Calif. » They call them freeways for a reason.
But one of the symbols of the American freeway — Interstate 110, which runs, or rather crawls, across central Los Angeles — is free no more. At precisely 10 p.m. last Saturday night, motorists faced a toll of up to $15.40 for the privilege of driving an 11-mile stretch of express lanes between Gardena and downtown Los Angeles.
In most parts of the country, it would be no big deal, hardly worth mentioning.
So never mind that tolls have been around as long as dirt roads and covered bridges, and that congestion pricing — as this is known — has become embraced by metropolises across the country to combat traffic and pollution. And never mind that its reach here is limited to lone drivers willing to pay up to $1.40 a mile, depending on traffic, for a money-back guarantee that their average speed will never drop below 45 mph.
This is the first toll in the history of Los Angeles County, a passage, as it were, and a jarring experience for a part of the country that has long celebrated the primacy of automobiles, not to mention the first syllable of the word "freeway."
"I've been living here my whole life," said S. Masani Jackson, as she waited on a 30-person line to buy the transponder required to enter the exclusive lanes. "And I have never had to pay for the 110 Freeway. It's ridiculous."
Miguel Chavez, 26, who lives in downtown Los Angeles, asked the question that has been reverberating across the city: "What else are they going to start charging us for?"
Los Angeles County is only putting a toe in the water. The toll applies to 11 miles of road, with another 14 mile-stretch on Interstate 10 to open next year. It is a one-year pilot program, funded by the federal government. Carpoolers (which is defined, generously, as a vehicle carrying two passengers), motorcycles and buses continue to ride for free. And the county has a nearby example to study, since congestion pricing began in neighboring Orange County in 1995.
Genevieve Giuliano, the director of the National Center for Metropolitan Transportation Research at the University of Southern California, said the increasing crush of traffic here, combined with cutbacks in federal highway construction funds, made these kinds of programs more urgent.
"It's a very tough sell for the public," she said. "But it works very well when it happens. Around the country, in the most congested areas, people are understanding that we don't have a lot of options."
Yet the notion of paying a toll to bring a car on the highway is running up against long-standing cultural standards. The freeway is one way the West differentiated itself from the rest of the nation, with its welter of toll roads and bridges. For many people who moved here, the freeway represented a liberation from the tyranny of tollbooths, the equivalent of an open range for the automobile age.
"We Angelenos are the last of the Mohicans on this issue," The San Gabriel Valley Tribune wrote in an editorial. "Our neighbors in Orange and Riverside Counties have long had the ‘choice' of paying for free-flowing freeway access. And the East Coast and Chicago grew up on toll roads."
"To us, it's still passing strange," the editors said. "And we'll likely rebel against the very idea of paying to drive on public highways."
The tolls are the latest manifestation of a campaign by Los Angeles officials to challenge the primacy of the automobile to deal with congestion that has long been a threat to the city's vitality. Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa has advocated a sharp expansion of the region's subway system and encouraged the use of bicycles.
"People want relief," said Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Los Angeles County supervisor. "There's nothing complicated about it. Considering that LA distinguishes itself as the traffic congestion capital of the nation, we felt obligated to innovate, experiment, whatever we can do to make driving on the freeways more bearable."
Richard Galvaz, who lives in El Monte, said the toll was a fair price to escape what can be a 45-minute drive.
"It's worth it if you're in a hurry to get home," he said. "You got to pay the price. If not, get stuck in traffic. If you can't afford it, take the bus."
The $20 million expected to be raised annually by the toll is going to expand bus lines in the region. Still, in a city marked by stark differences in wealth, the notion of being able to pay to escape traffic rankles.
"Look where this is: South Central," Jackson, the longtime resident, said. "Why don't they do it on the West Side?"
Stephanie H. Wiggins, who is running the program for the county's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, acknowledged the resistance.
"It's definitely a concern that we've heard," she said. "Solo drivers feel like it's a double tax. But we remind them that these tolls are optional. It's not a tax."
There is also the matter of convenience. Anyone wanting to use the high-speed lanes now has to buy a transponder for $40. The line here for them snaked outside the door as the sun set the other afternoon.
There are similar programs in Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Houston, and, most recently, on part of the Beltway in Washington. Still, the relative modesty of the Los Angeles program has stirred questions about its ultimate effectiveness.
"I'm not too optimistic about major, big results for the Los Angeles project," said Robert Poole, director of transportation at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian policy research organization. "I hope I'm wrong. But I suspect that most of the users will be freebies. They won't collect very much revenue. And if only a small percentage of people are paying the charge, the impact on congestion is going to be small."
But Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, said he expected the program to work as well in Los Angeles as it has elsewhere.
"We need it more than other places," he said. "What seemed unthinkable for previous generations may seem indispensable to the next generation."