Declaring that it's time to try something new in the war on traffic, Los Angeles County transportation officials unanimously voted Thursday to make some motorists pay tolls to use carpool lanes on two local freeways.
If all goes as planned, tolls for those lanes will take effect on the 10 and 210 freeways in the San Gabriel Valley by the end of 2010.
On the 210, it is expected that tolls will be implemented between Pasadena and the 605 Freeway. On the 10 Freeway, tolls probably would be charged on the stretch between downtown Los Angeles and the 605.
Carpool lanes on the 110 Freeway south of downtown also may become toll lanes -- if the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has money left over.
"This is a great opportunity to think outside the box and to try something that has been tested around the world and has worked," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a member of the MTA board. "Part of the reason that Los Angeles has not been able to grapple with gridlock is because we've been unable to make the tough decisions."
Events moved quickly this week after the MTA learned that the U.S. Department of Transportation was prepared to offer local transit officials more than $200 million to buy about 60 high-capacity buses and upgrade Metrolink train service in the San Gabriel Valley. In exchange, the MTA board had to agree to try on its freeways some so-called congestion pricing, a toll scheme in which the charge varies by time of day.
The idea has become increasingly popular around the world over the last decade; in the United States, the 91 Freeway express lanes connecting Riverside and Orange counties were the pioneer. Officials hope the tolls discourage some drivers from using the road during rush hours, so they can guarantee that remaining toll lane traffic goes at least 45 mph.
Exactly how the lanes would work, officials said, remains to be sorted out -- namely, the amount of the tolls. On the 91 express lanes, tolls range from $1.20 to $10. Toll lanes on the 15 Freeway in San Diego County charge fees that go from 50 cents to $4.
Motorists would be charged as they passed under toll lane sensors. A transponder on a vehicle's dashboard would communicate with the sensor, which would then bill an account set up by the motorist. The tolls would go partly toward better mass transit
A few details have begun to emerge about the plan in Los Angeles County, although all are subject to change:
* Single-occupant cars probably would be allowed in the carpool lanes but would have to pay a toll, as would cars with two people in them.
* Hybrids now allowed in carpool lanes with only a single occupant also would have to pay to use toll lanes.
* Vehicles with three or more passengers might get to use the toll lanes for free. That item will have to be negotiated with federal officials.
Several MTA board members -- led by Villaraigosa and one of his appointees, Richard Katz -- say they don't want to punish carpoolers who are already doing a good thing.
Over the last year, the U.S. Transportation Department has been prodding cities and states to install more toll lanes, providing federal money to metropolitan areas willing to give them a try.
In a nationwide competition for the money last year, Los Angeles County was eliminated in the first round after it committed only to study congestion pricing because tolls are controversial in a state that takes pride in having "freeways."
So local officials reapplied in December and struck gold after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan was sunk by the New York state Legislature. That freed up money for Los Angeles County, which federal officials have described as one of the nation's preeminent laboratories for traffic.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters will hold a news conference in Los Angeles today to announce the deal, first reported in The Times on Thursday.
The hope among local officials is that the tolls and new express bus service would reduce the number of solo drivers and help everyone else on the freeway go much faster. And some area residents said they're eager to see it.
"All the voluntary measures they've tried to get people to drive less aren't working," said Colin Bogart, 39, of Hollywood.
Others aren't so sure. Eric Sandberg, 28, who commutes from Phelan, near Victorville, to his job with the Arcadia Unified School District each day -- with a stop to drop off his carpooling partner in Pomona -- said the plan would either overwhelm the carpool lanes with willing buyers or force existing carpoolers into the already congested regular lanes.
Still, would he pay to ease his commute?
"It would have to be fairly cheap," he said. "It costs me enough to get to work as it is with gas prices."