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XI. Lessons Learned from the Task Force

The REACH Task Force unanimously approved its Final Report on January 22, 1997, calling for outreach and involvement programs to teach market-based transportation concepts to the public. It specifically (some might say astonishingly) called for the "implement[ation] of HOT-lane demonstrations within the region by 1999, if feasible," and of "mid- and long-term, fair and equitable region-wide congestion and emissions-based transportation user fees." Translated from plannerese, it asked for new HOT lanes in the short run, region-wide congestion and emission charges in the longer run. It also called for feasibility studies of five candidate HOT-lane projects. REACH, 1997, pp. 3-4. It continued its analysis of HOT-lane projects through April 1998 and succeeded in getting two add-a-HOT-lane projects (but not regionwide congestion pricing) adopted in the 1998 SCAG Regional Transportation Plan (SCAG, 1998a, p. I-29). By the Year 2000, none of the proposed HOT-lane projects had come anywhere near adoption, most likely because both of the main forces for creating the Task Force had greatly receded by the late 1990's. These were: extreme shortages of public transportation funds and threatened federal sanctions to force mandatory employee ridesharing. With the EPA in full retreat, Orange County out of bankruptcy, and Los Angeles County back from the brink of bankruptcy, local governments felt free to return to their wasteful, comfortable, old tax-and-spend transportation policies, trust-funded megabus, megaroad, and megarail projects, and they did.

While it lasted, however, the Task Force learned and taught four important lessons, which may one day be taken to heart (2):

    1. Resolution matters. After all the expensive modeling runs, it is clear that high-resolution, real-time congestion and emissions charges could spare us much more smog and congestion, at much lower cost, than any of the lower-resolution, supposedly more palatable regulations and pricing strategies (such as employee rideshare mandates or VMT charges) studied. If we had them at full scale, they could save the average household in the Basin hundreds of dollars a year in avoided costs from delay and lost health and productivity.

    2. HOT lanes on crowded corridors are the best start toward testing and achieving a universal, high-resolution system. If resolution matters, and immediate, full-scale, full-strength implementation is not expected, then it is better to start small-scale, with strong incentives, than large-scale, with weak ones. Strong incentives produce strong impacts, whether in Singapore, on Eastern toll roads, or on California HOT lanes. Pricing always gets you there faster, and the public likes it. Weak incentives are a political dead end. They get no one there faster and would be seen, correctly, as nothing but another tax. If there is any hope of getting to full-scale smog and congestion pricing, it will be from baby steps that produce visible benefits, not baby steps that don't.

    3. The general public in Southern California is surprisingly willing to try road pricing.

    4. Problems of regressiveness and revenue use are negligible for start-up programs, and non-prohibitive for full-scale systems. Nothing is either good or bad but alternatives make it so. The existing system is so colossally wasteful that almost any higher-resolution alternative would be an improvement. Counting the value of their time, most low-income drivers (and most other drivers) would be better off with congestion charges than they are now, regardless of whether they pay the charge or switch to bus or carpool. The system as a whole would be much less regressive than what we have now. It is unjust and unwise to dither over a pound of equity while perpetuating the tons of hours of life and health that the average household in the Basin loses every year to smog and congestion. They will never get it back.

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