The Problems of Congestion Pricing in LA

Tim Rutten objects to congestion pricing on LA freeways, and I, like Mark Thoma, am sympathetic. Since I was such a strong advocate of congestion pricing in New York City, however, it’s worth teasing out the main reason why something which makes sense in New York doesn’t necessarily make sense in LA. Here’s Rutten:

It takes unconventional and courageous thinking to come up with a plan that clears a highway lane for the well-off, while the middle class and working poor are left to inhale each other’s $5-a-gallon exhaust fumes… making the daily lives of the hundreds of thousands of moderate-income commuters … even more intolerable…

In Southern California, the middle class and working poor have no choice but to use the freeways to get back and forth to work and school because, decade after decade, public officials have encouraged urban sprawl while neglecting public transit. For most commuters today, the highway is the only way.

This is the big difference between NY and LA. In NY, it’s the rich who drive personal vehicles during the working day in midtown: the poor don’t. The other big difference is that in New York there are alternatives to driving, including public transport and bicycling. While there are indeed areas of New York City which are not well served by public transport, the residents of those areas generally don’t commute to Manhattan.

In New York, congestion pricing forces well-off drivers to pay for – and help ameliorate – the negative externalities which they impose on the population as a whole. On the LA freeways, there’s a good chance that it would only serve to exacerbate those negative externalities for most local residents.

All the same, there are probably ways to make congestion pricing work in LA, and to redirect the revenues from it to those who would be hardest hit. I’m going to be at the Milken Global Conference for the next three days, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for commentary on this issue.

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