Can road pricing be used to make LA’s transportation system more equitable?

By Rayla Bellis

California nonprofit TransForm and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently released a new report and toolkit with guidance for bringing equity into the implementation of congestion pricing. While conversations about congestion pricing and equity often focus on minimizing the negative—reducing disproportionate impacts to low-income residents—the report authors argue a different paradigm: that pricing strategies can be used to improve the equity of transportation systems overall by harnessing the potential efficiencies to address systemic inequities.

The report is timely for the LA region. In late January, the Board of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro) opted to delay a proposal to explore congestion pricing options for the region, citing a need to weigh and address equity implications before moving forward. The Board approved a motion tasking Metro with developing an “equity strategy” for congestion pricing through consultation with experts and stakeholders before advancing further. TransForm’s and NRDC’s new report, Pricing Roads, Advancing Equity, could help provide some of the answers needed to move forward.

The Board made the decision to delay after considering a variety of financing strategies, including congestion pricing, for 28 projects that LA Metro aims to complete before the 2028 Olympics. Metro CEO Phil Washington had previously endorsed congestion pricing for Los Angeles in December, arguing that rush-hour tolls on drivers could fund free fares on public transit in the region and help accelerate those 28 projects. Metro is considering three pricing options: cordon pricing, similar to London, Singapore, and Stockholm; a vehicle mileage fee, similar to the road usage charge in Oregon and a California pilot project conducted in 2016-2017, and a corridor charge applied to 10 heavily congested corridors. The board’s decision reflects concerns from critics that pricing would penalize low-income workers in the region who rely on their cars to get to and perform their jobs, and that the region does not currently have the transit service needed to give all residents a viable alternative to driving.

Pricing Roads, Advancing Equity argues that congestion pricing can be equitable if equity considerations and meaningful engagement are made a central part of implementation from beginning to end. The report provides guidance and examples for achieving two types of equitable outcomes: “process equity,” or the full participation of vulnerable communities in the process, and “outcome equity,” which the report defines based on affordability, access to opportunities, and community health.

The authors also argue that the current system—free roads, with the inefficiencies, congestion, and pollution they bring—already perpetuates inequity and disproportionately harms vulnerable communities in ways that congestion pricing could help address. In Los Angeles, this means sitting in congestion that eats up an extra 100 hours each year on average, resulting in less time with families, fewer hours for business owners on service calls, and daycare late fees for parents with less flexible schedules, as NRDC notes.

Strategies recommended in the report include offering discounts and exemptions to low-income drivers and people with disabilities, as well as investing the revenue from congestion pricing into free or reduced-price transit and walking and biking infrastructure. While Virginia is using the revenues from the new variable tolling on I-66 in northern VA to fund new and expanded bus routes and bike share stations, no state has yet used revenue from road pricing to provide free transit, as LA Metro’s CEO has suggested. Discussions will resume when the full Metro board meets next on Feb. 28.

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.