By SAMUEL R. STALEY


Traffic congestion in Los Angeles eats up at least $9.3 billion a year in wasted time and excess fuel each year, and these numbers don't even include the costs to businesses from freight delays. It's time for the L.A. business community to say "enough is enough" and push for reforms like high-occupancy toll lanes to meet the growing mobility needs of the region.


Los Angeles' infrastructure needs are daunting. To eliminate severe congestion, Reason Foundation estimates the region will have to invest nearly $68 billion by 2030. That figure, $68 billion, represents just 59 percent of planned spending under the long-range transportation plans of the Southern California Association of Governments. But because of years of neglect and a failure to prioritize projects based on their congestion-reduction potential, L.A.'s traffic will be worse in 2030 than it is today even after spending $48.5 billion on highway upgrades and $66.9 billion on mass transit.


Given the practical and political realities facing L.A. policymakers, a network of HOT lanes may be the only practical alternative to gridlock.


HOT lanes are carpool lanes that allow solo drivers to use them for a fee. Southern California pioneered the concept with the 91 Express Lanes in Orange County and I-15 HOT Lanes in San Diego. The innovative concept allows the toll rate to change based on the level of traffic and time of day. This allows HOT lanes to guarantee free-flow highway speeds 24-7.


By virtually all measures, California's HOT lanes have been successful. The Orange County Transportation Authority reports that 171,589 transponders are currently in use and operating revenues continue to increase from year to year. The lanes are handling more traffic than ever, increasing 11.3 percent in just the past year alone.


Maximum value

It's time to take these experiments out of the "test" phase and apply them on a regional scale. Greater L.A. and the Inland Empire have more than 700 miles of carpool lanes that could be converted to HOT Lanes right now. Using electronic, variable-rate tolling like the kind already operating on Orange County and San Diego, these lanes could provide a quick alternative to the clogged highways that Angelenos currently endure on a day-to-day basis.


But, regional transportation planners need to think beyond individual projects to get the maximum value from the HOT-lane concept. They need to think about building a network that allows someone traveling from one side of L.A. to the other to get where they want to go quickly and reliably.


Imagine the economic benefits of guaranteed travel speeds of 65 miles per hour from Laguna Beach all the way to the San Fernando Valley. A traveler could start on SR 73, hop on the 405 and end up in Santa Clarita, an 88-mile trip, in less than an hour and a half. Or perhaps a sales manager needs to make the 76-mile trip from Santa Monica to San Bernardino to see a client. Traveling on a network of HOT lanes, she could make the appointment in a little more than an hour guaranteed.


That's the promise of HOT lanes, and that promise is achievable. A regional network that links all parts of L.A., Orange County, and the Inland Empire could be accomplished by adding 385 lane-miles to the existing high-occupancy vehicle system in Greater L.A. and 320 lane-miles in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, creating a total system of 1,419 miles of HOT Lanes.


Not cheap

Of course, building a regional network of HOT lanes wouldn't be cheap in the beginning: $13.5 billion in Greater L.A. and $5.8 billion in San Bernardino/Riverside.


But, toll revenues will cover as much as 92 percent of the cost of building the network in Greater L.A. and 72 percent of the cost in the Inland Empire. Instead of bonds, where taxpayers end up paying $2 for every $1 in bonds, or tax increases, taxpayers wouldn't pay for these HOT lanes unless they drove on them and paid the toll.


HOT lanes will not be a panacea for L.A.'s traffic ills, but they represent an important, practical, incremental step forward. More importantly, they can be a vehicle for raising critical funds for infrastructure enhancements that cannot possibly be met from existing sources, including the statewide Measure 1B bonds passed in 2006.


Unfortunately, L.A.'s time is running out. Businesses won't put up with gridlock forever. The failure to move forward on realistic and pragmatic proposals like HOT lanes and HOT networks jeopardizes the economic health of the region as well as its ability to sustain investment in a globally competitive environment.

Samuel R. Staley is director of urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation in Los Angeles and co-author of the book "The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It."

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