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7 Ways in Search of a Will

Workable Ideas to Help Unclog Our Roads, Assuming Anyone Has the Guts

August 29, 2004|Hugo Martin | Times staff writer Hugo Martin has covered Southern California transportation for eight years.

Transportation officials have tested an idea on an eight-mile stretch of highway north of San Diego that they believe could greatly ease Southern California's notorious gridlock. There's just one flaw: Any politician who backs the idea could be labeled an elitist and accused of discriminating against the poor.

On this section of Interstate 15, the carpool lanes have been converted to High Occupancy/Toll, or HOT, lanes. Solo drivers can pay a toll that varies from 50 cents to $4 to cruise the underused carpool lanes, while carpoolers continue to use the lanes for free.

This promising and proven concept, however, probably will remain a limited experiment in Southern California because critics have labeled the HOT lanes "Lexus Lanes" and predicted that they would create a two-tier class system for drivers. What politician wants to take the lead and risk a reputation as the Marie Antoinette of the freeways? While the timid wring their hands, Southern California continues its long run as having the most congested freeway system in the nation. Transportation experts and urban planners say innovative ideas could help thaw the region's freeway permafrost, but they lament the lack of will among officials who are reluctant to pay a political price for progress.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 29, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 86 words Type of Material: Correction
Port plan -- The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach said Monday that shippers will be charged higher fees to truck freight from the ports during peak commute hours. The purpose is to ease traffic congestion by encouraging shippers to haul cargo at night and on weekends. That idea is among seven possible solutions to Southern California traffic woes outlined in today's Los Angeles Times Magazine. The magazine went to press before Monday's announcement and thus does not say that the port plan was approved.

The result is safe and time-tested solutions such as carpool lanes and commuter buses that promise only marginal relief and are less likely to rile homeowners groups and business leaders. In 2000, the last year for which statistics were compiled, traffic in Southern California was responsible for 1.45 million hours of delay to motorists per day. That translated to $13.8 billion in lost productivity annually, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

Is traffic simply the price of living in sunny Southern California, just as inclement weather is the price of living in Seattle? Is the problem simply too big to solve?

"Everybody is looking for the silver bullet answer," says former Assemblyman Richard Katz, who chaired the Assembly Transportation Committee for 10 years. "Since that doesn't exist, those smaller incremental ideas don't get done."

Maybe it's time to ask: "Why not?"

What follows are seven small-scale traffic-busting ideas that think-tank analysts, academics and transportation experts believe could help solve the problem, but that remain on the drawing board because of overly cautious transportation policymakers.

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Squeeze the Herd

Require motorists who travel on heavily congested roads to pay a toll that increases during peak commuting periods.

The idea, known as "congestion charging," has succeeded in other parts of the country and in Europe. The tolls create an economic incentive to shift car trips to off-peak hours, ride mass transit or organize carpools. The HOT lanes concept operates under the same philosophy because tolls increase as the lanes get more congested. With the use of electronic transponders mounted on a vehicle's windshield, tolls can be electronically paid from a bank account or with a credit card, eliminating the need to stop traffic or staff toll booths.

When London Mayor Ken Livingstone imposed congestion pricing last year on motorists who entered the central section of the city, critics predicted his political career would die along with his traffic-easing idea. But the toll concept worked, cutting traffic congestion by 30% and raising much-needed funds for public transit. Livingstone was reelected in June and is considering expanding the tolls to other sections of the English capital.

So far, no leading political figure in Southern California has promoted the widespread use of congestion-charging tolls. Says Robert Poole, a supporter of the concept and director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation, a public policy research organization in Los Angeles: "These things almost never succeed without a champion."

Volunteers?

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Better Clock Management

Operate the terminals at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach 24 hours a day, allowing trucks to haul cargo after peak commuting hours.

More than 12 million containers come in and out of the two ports each year, generating about 35,000 truck trips per day. That number is expected to more than triple in the next two decades. Most of the terminals operate from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., dumping a stream of 18-wheelers onto the region's freeways at the height of rush hour.

Several local lawmakers have advocated shifting the ports to a 24-hour schedule, but they've been unable to persuade terminal operators and retailers to go along. Truck drivers and longshoremen support the concept because it could lead to more work and higher salaries. "A lot of truck drivers would be willing to work at night," says driver Carlos Ayala, preparing to haul a load from the Port of Los Angeles to a warehouse in Perris. "I think it would be a lot better because it would cut down on the time we spend on the road and in the terminal."

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