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U.S. offers funds for toll lanes

MTA will weigh congestion pricing on parts of 10 and 210, but fees to use freeways remain controversial.

April 24, 2008|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

The federal government has offered Los Angeles County $213 million to convert carpool lanes to special, congestion-pricing toll lanes on three freeways, according to county government documents.

The freeways involved first would be short stretches of Interstates 10 and 210 in the San Gabriel Valley, and then, if any money remained, part of the 110 south of downtown Los Angeles.

The federal funding, however, would come to L.A. County only if local and state transportation officials agreed to the changes, which are highly controversial in the region, where most motorists expect "free" freeways.

Board members of the county Metropolitan Transportation Authority today will consider adopting a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Also, the California Transportation Commission and the state Legislature would probably have a say before the special toll lanes were created, sources said.

The idea of the special lanes is to impose costly tolls during rush hours to unclog congestion by discouraging people from driving during busy times -- so-called "congestion" pricing.

Tolls would vary by time of day, with the highest fees during the busiest times. Cars with single occupants would probably be allowed to use the lanes -- if they pay a price.

In the proposed deal, the federal money would go toward the purchase of about 60 high-volume buses that would use the new toll lanes. That would free up MTA funds for creating the toll lanes.

L.A. Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who chairs the council's Transportation Committee, said she's cautiously optimistic that the MTA board would adopt the plan today.

She said that although she understands that fees are unpopular, it was time to try something new.

"The most important aspect of this is the breadth of the money," Greuel said. "We're in the 21st century and that means we have to look at solutions we never have before."

A spokesman for L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Wednesday night that the mayor is supportive of the plan and feels it deserves "a test ride."

MTA spokesman Marc Littman declined to comment on the funding offer. Officials with the U.S. Department of Transportation did not return calls.

Transportation officials hope enough people use the buses and the tolls clear enough space in the carpool lanes for traffic flow to remain at 45 mph or more at all times.

Currently, many carpool lanes are near capacity and frequently suffer the same stop-start traffic that grips regular lanes.

Only short stretches of freeway fall under the proposal.

On the I-210, the tolls would be in effect between junctions with the 710 and 605 -- an 11-mile stretch that includes some of its heaviest volumes of traffic, according to Caltrans.

On the I-10, the tolls would affect the El Monte Busway, a distance of about 10 miles. The first parts of the project could be implemented in 2010.

The federal offer has come to Los Angeles County after New York City failed to approve a congestion pricing program.

"We feel it's important for the public to feel this and taste it," Tyler Duvall, acting undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said earlier this month. "L.A. is a national interest area, and it's important in our view to get [congestion pricing] on the ground and demonstrated to everyone."

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steve.hymon@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Marla Cone contributed to this report.

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