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Q&A | LOCAL GOVERNMENT

How a bid for U.S. transit cash bounced from fast lane

A proposal by the city of Los Angeles and the MTA to curb freeway congestion was rejected because planners failed to do their homework.

June 25, 2007|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

In May 2006, the federal government published a call to arms for traffic-ridden cities across the country.

The feds -- their big wallet loosened to the tune of $1.2 billion -- asked cities to propose novel ways to ease congestion. One of the key requirements for being considered for funds was that cites include a proposal for "tolling," or "congestion pricing."

Congestion pricing has become an in-vogue term in transportation circles and is already in use on the 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. It's the practice of charging a toll, but with a twist: The price changes as traffic increases.

As the price goes up, the theory holds, fewer motorists will use the road.

Several government entities in Los Angeles County -- including the city of Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority -- submitted a joint application. Nationwide, nine of the 27 cities that applied were named semifinalists earlier this month, but the local effort was bounced from the competition.

Why?

Having reviewed the 30-page application, we offer this easy two-step guide to blowing a chance at millions of dollars in federal funding:

1) Don't follow instructions. Whereas other cities actually proposed tolling and congestion-pricing programs, the local application stated only that it would study the concept.

2) Use suspect spelling. The sixth sentence on the application's cover sheet read: "For this effort, Los Angeles County partners will bee seeking [the Department of Transportation's] technical support on advice."

Isn't it annoying when the spell-check can't tell the difference between a verb and a yellow-and-black thingy with wings?

Yes.

Were there any interesting ideas in the local application?

Yes, something called "system-wide adaptive ramp metering," or SWARM.

Here's how it works: Freeway onramps would be expanded or bypasses built so carpoolers and buses could easily enter the freeway. Meanwhile, onramp meters would allow fewer single-occupant vehicles to get on the freeway, with the goal being to keep freeway speeds at 50 mph at all times.

The application explains: "Drivers will 'pay' by waiting and thus be encouraged to use freeway transit, carpools, travel along parallel arterial streets, use new Bus Rapid Transit services on city streets or use existing or new light rail system (such as the Exposition Light Rail) in the same corridor."

This is bold. It may be genius. It may even work, although the law of unintended consequences says traffic could be moved from freeways to arterials, trapping everything in its path.

The folks at the MTA say that won't happen because part of SWARM involves better synchronizing the ramp meters with traffic lights. The same folks also believe they can still get the feds to provide money for this.

There is the little problem that the pilot project for SWARM is intended for the Santa Monica Freeway and hasn't received much public vetting on the Westside, where traffic is the big issue.

The SWARM idea aside, the funny thing about all this is that there is one extremely obvious place in Los Angeles where tolling or congestion pricing would be easy to implement and would work. It could even raise money for other transit projects.

Put on your thinking caps and try to guess where that place is. We'll get back to it next week.

Why did Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who last year made a big deal out of proposing a moratorium on condo conversions in his Westside district, support a condo conversion in his Westside district last week?

It's a long story, but a telling one.

The background: In 1981, the council adopted a law that identified several circumstances under which the city could reject a conversion.

The law has not been used for the last 25 years. But in February, the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission used it to reject the proposed conversion of a 14-unit apartment building in Brentwood to an 11-unit condo.

Why? They determined it would significantly reduce the number of rental units in the community and the relocation assistance offered by the developer was deemed inadequate for the neighborhood -- both circumstances that the law holds as grounds for rejection. Then a funny thing happened. Rosendahl decided to support the project, on the condition that the handful of tenants still opposing the conversion were given certain special protections, such as being allowed to stay in their rental units for years to come.

On Tuesday, in a back room literally behind council chambers, Rosendahl mediated the final deal between the residents and the developer, Xenon, represented by big-time land-use attorney Ben Reznik. The council approved it.

Residents aren't talking about the settlement because it's confidential. It appears that Rosendahl got the tenants a reprieve from eviction rarely given other tenants across town. But confidentiality means the other residents of the building -- or you or I or anyone else getting booted from their apartment in the city -- can't find out what they got.

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