Metro’s Board of Directors voted 10 to 0 on Thursday to continue the Reimagining LA County Plan to February. In plain English, that means nothing was decided one way or the other about anything and, as of 2:05 p.m. PST, the world continued to gently churn on its axis.
With my full acknowledgement that I’m about to expend a few bushels of words on an item that is getting pushed back a month (TLDR tag added), here goes…
The Reimagining plan seeks to fund the building of 28 major transportation projects in time for the 2028 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in our region. The idea was brought to the Board by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti in fall 2017 and approved by the Board in Jan. 2018. In response, Metro staff are working on a funding plan and Thursday was an opportunity to update the Board and ask for action on a couple items — although not the congestion pricing part of it.
Twenty of the projects in the plan are scheduled to be done by 2028. An estimated $26.2 billion — yes, billion — would need to be secured to complete the other eight projects by ’28. Enter congestion pricing, which Metro staff says has the potential to raise more than $100 billion.
Metro CEO Phil Washington in December told the Board that such funds could be used to provide free transit going forward. He has also pointed to the fact that congestion pricing could greatly reduce or eliminate our region’s traffic scourge. To put it lightly, the issue’s profile got a boost earlier this week when the region’s largest media outlet, the L.A. Times, ran a very good front page story about the plan and congestion pricing.
In short, the Board on Thursday delayed taking action on the two actions that Metro staff were requesting: 1) approving a list of ‘sacred’ projects whose funding would be off-limits to building the 28 projects, and; 2) authorize Metro to pursue a White House Task Force to secure federal funding for mobility projects for the Olympics.
The Board instead approved two motions (both by 10 to 0 tally; absent were Board Members Eric Garcetti, Robert Garcia and Mark Ridley-Thomas) asking for a ton more info about congestion pricing, how it might work and how it could be done in an equitable way. Here are the motions:
The Board also spent more than an hour discussing the item and, in particular, congestion pricing. While there was some praise for Metro for proposing a big and audacious idea — i.e. tolling — there was also skepticism the public would accept congestion pricing or that it would work, at least as things currently stand in our region.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district covers northern L.A. County, pointed to the fact that the Reimagining plan is coming on the heels of voters approving Measures R and M and voting last November not to repeal the state gas tax increase. And she pointed to the fact that many of her constituents do not feel there are yet viable transit alternatives to driving. “You brought in an expert that you need infrastructure in place to give alternatives to getting around and this is going to be used to build infrastructure to help people get around,” Barger said, adding it’s a classic chicken versus egg problem.
Los Angeles Council Member Mike Bonin gave high praise to the Reimagining plan and its goals — reducing traffic, more equity, helping the environment. “That’s the goal and that’s the mission and that should be what we’re all about,” Bonin said. He also told Washington that he sympathized with the challenge of building so many projects.
“We know we have asked you to do the impossible — do all this, do it faster and don’t sacrifice anything…and that’s not going to happen,” he said, while also making it clear he wasn’t quite ready to leap into congestion pricing. “There has to be an alternative [to driving] and there are people who have no choice but to take a car…that’s a reality and those are all things to look at and figure out.”
Bonin did mention two places that he thought congestion pricing could one day be tested — downtown Los Angeles and LAX after the Crenshaw/LAX Line and Automated People Mover connect Metro Rail to the airport’s passenger terminals.
LAT reporter Laura Nelson also tweeted out a string of reportage during the meeting. For those interested in the Fourth Estate’s take, scroll through this tweet stream:
The @metrolosangeles board is discussing congestion pricing this morning — they won't be voting on anything today, but I'm going to share some details from board members showing their thinking and reservations >> https://t.co/RlFsPNKWjP
— Laura J. Nelson 🦅 (@laura_nelson) January 24, 2019
A few points I also want to make clear:
•The Reimagining Plan is scheduled to go to the Board next month. It remains to be seen whether the Board wants to tackle the associated funding plan at that time.
•Like many people, I want to know a lot more about congestion pricing and how it might work in L.A. County. That said, I’d like to offer my three cents on a few things I’ve read or heard in the past week:
–Congestion pricing would be countywide or only in the city of L.A. or only local residents would pay. I want to stress that nothing has been decided but the general idea of C.P. is to charge all vehicles who take up space on the roads at peak hours (think the truckers going through the county without stopping).
–To stress: Metro staff’s funding plan only seeks to launch a feasibility study on congestion pricing that would determine where it might be tested and how it could work.
–All day laborers and workers would hate congestion pricing has been a recurring theme. My guess is that remains to be seen. I imagine some would not like the extra costs of driving whereas others would appreciate the time savings that could lead to more work and more money overall.
–Congestion pricing is a regressive policy. If looked at strictly as a fee, then yes. But it’s a fee with associated progressive benefits: better transit, less pollution, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and time (and thus money) savings for many people, to name four. Fully acknowledging the pros and cons, I think, is more helpful when debating the issue.
–I do think it’s safe to say that many commuters who want to avoid tolls would move to transit. But I doubt it’s everyone. Congestion pricing may also persuade some folks to take discretionary trips at other times of the day and it could result in some employers shifting hours or tolerating telecommuting more than they do (about five percent of workers in L.A. County work at home, according to the Census Bureau). As an Office Cubicle Dweller, that last point certainly interests me.
A few other announcements made earlier in the meeting:
•250,000 LAUSD students rode Metro for free during the strike, Board Chair Sheila Kuehl announced.
•Metro is studying to simplify its fare structure and right-size it, Metro CEO Phil Washington announced.
•Accidents involving Metro Rail have decreased 45 percent since the first Safetyville videos debuted in 2016, Washington said.
•Board Member and Supervisor Janice Hahn asked a question about the Blue Line closures, which begin Saturday: how will the bus shuttles replacing rail service on the southern half of the line handle the demand for bicycle space? Washington said Metro staff will look into that issue. The closures, btw, are part of the New Blue project to modernize the Blue Line and make it more reliable.
•Board Member and Duarte Council Member John Fasana mentioned the homicide on the Gold Line in Irwindale in November, saying the suspect who stabbed to death a rider had not paid his fare. He asked for a discussion going forward on security presence on the system and keeping those who don’t pay from boarding buses and trains.
•In closed session, the Board extended Metro CEO Phil Washington’s contract by two years. Phil started with the agency in May 2015.
Finally, the Board approved two items involving Metro’s ExpressLanes:
The first item authorizes Metro staff to develop a plan for dealing with recent congestion and reliability challenges in the I-10 ExpressLanes by raising the toll-free occupancy requirement to five persons or more.
The change is expected to improve transit on-time performance, increase ExpressLanes peak period throughput by 600 persons each weekday, and ensure that the ExpressLanes remain a fast alternative to the general purpose freeway lanes to the drivers when they need it most.
Preliminary analyses indicate a net benefit of $3.7 million per day to the users of the corridor in the form of delay savings, though this includes an average increase to travel times in the general purpose lanes of approximately four minutes. Staff is exploring strategies for mitigating any potential negative impacts of this policy on corridor users, including low income commuters.
Staff would also return to the Board upon completion of the implementation plan, at which time the Board can review the plan and decide how to proceed. Staff report
The second item authorizes staff to implement a “pay as you use” payment option that allows motorists to use the ExpressLanes without a FasTrak transponder. For those without transponders, cameras would photograph the vehicle’s license plate and the registered owner would receive an invoice in the mail for the toll cost plus a $4 surcharge to cover the added processing cost.
As with other comparable toll payment options offered by other agencies across the nation, including the Golden Gate Bridge in the Bay Area, customers using this “pay as you use” method would not be eligible for carpool discounts or clean air vehicle discounts. Staff report