Los Angeles again tops the list of U.S. cities with the worst traffic congestion in the country. Congestion is both frustrating and expensive, costing Angelenos more than $10 billion annually in wasted time and fuel. When you add gridlock’s adverse impacts on economic development, the environment and quality of life, it’s clear that we must seek and implement innovative transportation solutions.

The overwhelming majority of economic activity in urban areas depends on roadways – a simple and undeniable statistical fact. With our population and reliance on automobiles, our city can no longer build its way out of congestion. First, we just don’t have the space to build more general traffic lanes. Even if we did, latent demand, especially during peak hours, would quickly overload them.

Fortunately, there are viable solutions to urban congestion in this city, the state and across the country. If Los Angeles is serious about overcoming obstacles to growth, our leaders must take bold action to lay the foundation for long-term relief.

California already leads the movement toward adoption of express lanes, also known as priced managed lanes or toll lanes, as a sustainable solution to urban congestion. In fact, of the country’s nearly 2,800 miles of high-occupancy vehicle lanes being converted to express lanes, more than half are located in our state. In Los Angeles alone, 500 miles of HOV lanes are being used as or are planned for conversion to express toll lanes.

Express lanes offer commuters “congestion insurance.” When time is at a premium, solo drivers have the freedom to either stay in general purpose lanes or pay to enter express lanes. The toll rate varies by zone and time of day to ensure reliable travel speeds and less congestion. Using pricing to control transportation demand to get the most out of existing lanes is an important first step toward better traffic management.

In Los Angeles, underutilized HOV lanes on the interstate 110 and 10 freeways were recently converted to express lanes. Preliminary statistics released by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on this pilot project show increased usage and better travel speeds during peak periods. Officials anticipate that as more vehicles take advantage of the extra capacity on express lanes, speeds on general lanes will also improve.

Not only do express lanes provide a new mobility option for automobiles, they provide a reliable transit corridor for buses. All trips on a roadway are not the same; therefore, all lanes on a roadway should not be the same. Motorists value their time differently – whether driving to work, the airport, or to dinner and a movie. Express lanes provide access to all types of customers – from business owners to commuting college students to parents attending school activities. When given the choice, people will use them as needed.

Recent America Thinks surveys from my company, HNTB Corp., show that millions of Americans are aware there is a congestion problem; many would rather pay a fare on a road or highway to save travel time than pay higher taxes, and close to three in four commuters would likely used priced managed lanes if given the opportunity.

Well-designed express lanes are just one way to provide motorists congestion insurance and freedom of choice. Cities such as Los Angeles are best served by implementing a multimodal approach that encourages commuting options such as public transit, cycling and carpooling, all of which are already top priorities here.

Public reaction

With a majority of the public and so many experts showing support for the solution of priced managed lanes, should L.A. leaders be concerned about mixed public acceptance?

First, I challenge the notion that public opinion regarding priced managed lanes varies by region and that L.A.’s cultural reliance on the automobile makes drivers less willing to accept congestion pricing.

As demonstrated in other parts of the nation, such as Texas and Florida, local geography does not determine public opinion regarding priced managed lanes. Rather, public opinion varies according to the stage of the project life cycle. Even with robust public education and marketing programs in place, a general ramp-up time is needed for local constituencies to learn about priced managed lanes, try them out and realize tangible benefits.

Fixing a city’s gridlock takes time and resources, but the economic and social benefits can impact everyone. While it’s not yet clear whether express lanes can generate revenue for cities, there are tremendous economic benefits to cities due to improved mobility. Business, transportation and government leaders must take innovative steps to reduce traffic congestion, transform transportation ideas and improve the quality of life for Angelenos.

Matthew Click is HNTB Corp.’s southeast division director, tolls. HNTB is an architecture and engineering firm specializing in infrastructure including priced managed lanes.

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