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Tunnels and tolls: Reason Foundation releases vision to cut traffic

A proposal from the libertarian Reason Foundation would bring more high-occupancy toll lanes like those on the I-10 to Southern California. Photo by Matt' Johnson via Flickr Creative Commons

The libertarian nonprofit Reason Foundation released a plan Tuesday that aims to ease congestion in Southern California by constructing a network of toll road tunnels and expanding tolled express lanes across several counties.

Differing strategies to mitigate the region's gridlock have been emerging following debate over the Los Angeles Mobility Plan 2035, the city's long-range transportation blueprint to get Angelenos out of their cars by adding hundreds of miles of bus and bike lanes and, in some cases, reducing traffic lanes.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is investing billions of dollars in new rail projects and may soon ask county taxpayers to approve more funds via a November 2016 ballot measure. But the $700 billion Reason Foundation proposal steers clear of train, bike and pedestrian infrastructure and focuses on better facilitating car travel — although at a price.

"The plan is probably the most cost-effective way to both double down on private automobiles and reduce traffic congestion for those willing and able to pay the toll," said Juan Matute, associate director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies.

Under the plan, drivers would pay a premium to use express lanes on all freeways, and would have the option to pay even more to use tolled underpasses and overpasses at busy intersections. This would serve the twin purpose of reducing demand for road space and raising billions of dollars in revenue to fund transportation construction projects.

Where the plan falls short, says Matute, is in supplying a good alternative for those who can't or don't want to pay a high price for the privilege of driving. One alternative: robust public transit.

While the Reason Foundation does call for more rapid bus service, utilizing the proposed network of express lanes, buses can't match the speed and capacity of rail, especially over longer distances.

Hasan Ikhrata, executive director for the Southern California Association of Governments, joined the foundation to discuss the plan at a press event Tuesday, but pointed to where he disagrees with its details. The biggest problem with the plan, he said, is in what he calls its unrealistic reliance on building a massive network of tunnels. 

"This is just simply a nice idea, but it’s not going to work," he said, citing the complexity and time involved in planning, funding and gaining environmental approval for just a single subway in Los Angeles, a project that has been attempted for decades.

The Reason Foundation proposes tunneling under ground through urban areas, mountains and deserts to build more toll road connections between the far-flung corners of the region. According to its report, the projects could include:

While Ikhrata dismisses the tunnels as not feasible, he does agree with the idea of using tolls to manage congestion on roads and wants to see it more broadly applied with strategies to improve rail and bus service.

"These kinds of ideas I like," he said. "I think pricing has to come in as part of the solution."

However, he said, research has shown it is harder to sell the idea to a public resistant to paying extra for something it expects to be free.

Toll lanes are currently being planned for I-405 in Orange County and SR-91, I-15 and I-10 through the Inland Empire.