Despite being known as one of the nation's worst repositories for transportation gridlock, the Los Angeles area managed Thursday to miss out on qualifying for hundreds of millions of federal dollars for traffic-busting programs.
Although no official would say so on the record, several suggested privately that Southern California transit agencies and the elected officials who oversee them lost out because the grant required communities to offer some type of "congestion pricing": tolls that politicians know voters hate.
Instead, the application submitted by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority on behalf of local agencies requested money only to help pay for a study of congestion pricing.
The MTA is headed by county Supervisor Gloria Molina.
But one critic of the application shortfall expressed his disappointment with a co-chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has repeatedly vowed to lobby the state and Washington for more money to fight gridlock and expand mass transit.
"The mayor really missed the boat," said Bob Poole, director of transportation studies for the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based libertarian think tank.
"They submitted something that didn't respond to the criteria" that the Department of Transportation "clearly set out, and it's really a shame, because I can't imagine how Los Angeles wouldn't have been a finalist with a credible application," Poole said.
Los Angeles County could have proposed using the grant for a pilot program or, on a larger scale, to convert its estimated 468 miles of carpool lanes to congestion pricing lanes -- and use the revenue raised by the tolls to build carpool lanes throughout the county, he said. In particular, he mentioned the often clogged Santa Monica Freeway.
"You could have a network of these lanes all over Los Angeles County, run express buses on them and give public transit a big competitive advantage compared to people sitting in traffic," Poole said.
Molina could not be reached for comment.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, an MTA board member who has also been outspoken on transportation, declined to comment through a spokesman.
News that Los Angeles had lost out in the federal competition came early in the day when U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters announced that nine other large metropolitan areas -- including New York, San Diego, San Francisco and Denver -- were semifinalists in a competition for $1.1 billion in federal assistance. The money will be divided among up to five winners to be announced in August.
Villaraigosa's press office did not even know about the announcement until officials there were told by a Times reporter. In his nearly two years in office, the mayor has not taken a firm stance on congestion pricing, although he has lobbied hard for other transportation funds.
The mayor's office released a statement saying that Villaraigosa has already secured billions of dollars for the county and "will remain relentless" in pursuit of transportation funding.
Although tolls have long been part of the landscape in regions such as Orange County, the Bay Area, Chicago and New York, they are an idea that has rarely been seriously broached in Los Angeles County. The reason, some officials say, is that area politicians -- often with an eye on higher office or simply preserving their jobs -- know that the idea of suddenly charging to travel roads that for decades have been known as "freeways" consistently polls badly with voters.
The concept of congestion pricing, however, has not been a roadblock in heavily Republican and tax-averse San Diego County, where officials propose using the federal grant money to expand an existing toll system on Interstate 15.
Under their proposal, 24 miles of Interstate 15 between downtown San Diego and Escondido would have up to four reversible lanes that would be open to carpools, vanpools and buses. People who drive alone would pay to use those lanes.
New York City became a semifinalist based on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal for a congestion pricing program to discourage cars from entering Lower Manhattan on weekdays. In Denver -- another semifinalist -- the proposal calls for using congestion pricing on new high-occupancy lanes on U.S. 36 between the city and suburban Boulder.
The nine cities "selected as semifinalists by the secretary showed the best mix of having an innovative approach and the ability to have an impact on traffic in the shortest time frame," said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation.
Turmail said that 16 of the 27 proposals received by the agency followed the grant's requirement to include some form of congestion pricing. The semifinalists were among the 16.
Carol Inge, chief of planning for the MTA, said the proposal from the Los Angeles area was soft on the concept of tolls, but strong in other areas.