No one thought then that Los Angeles could duplicate Singapore's feat, more than 20 years previously, of adopting optimal road pricing overnight, even though it immediately cut traffic in Singapore's central business district by 40 percent and made it one of the most accessible in the world. Singapore was small, disciplined, unified, tolerant of heavy government exactions for owning and using cars, and very far away. The South Coast Basin was and is large, sprawling, decentralized, not so disciplined as Singapore, and intolerant of government exactions, especially those affecting mobility. Road pricing may look good to experts and study committees, but many skeptical people in the general public would have to be persuaded before it can become a reality on the roads here. Settling on a long-range goal was the Task Force's first step. Settling on a way to get there was the second.
The Task Force's Strategy Committee, and, briefly, the Task Force itself, debated between two phase-in strategies. The first alternative was a strategy of low emission charges for everyone, perhaps to be ratcheted up in the future, depending on public acceptance. The second was a strategy of HOT-lane (i.e., high-occupancy/toll) pilot projects, like that on the Riverside Freeway (SR 91). On this then-just-opened project, new fast lanes were paid for by user fees of up to 25 cents a mile during peak hours, but (at the time) were also open free to HOV-3's, vehicles with three or more occupants. The Task Force settled firmly on the second alternative, HOT lanes, recommending an unspecified number of additional HOT-lane projects by 1999. SCAG endorsed two HOT-lane projects in its Draft 1998 Regional Transportation Plan (SCAG, 1998, p. I-21), one for California SR-14 in Los Angeles County, one for Federal I-15 in Riverside County. Neither of these has materialized, however.
The initial attraction of the universal smog-charge strategy was that most Task Force members, and most respondents to Task Force surveys of the general public, were twice as concerned about smog as they were about congestion. They wanted to make greater smog control the immediate, as well as the ultimate goal of the Task Force. But this approach had three fatal drawbacks. It would not work without a full-blown, Basinwide collection and enforcement infrastructure, which we didn't and don't have. It would have no noticeable effect on smog till it was not only full-scale, but full-price. And, even at full price, it would have had no congestion-control benefits. In practice, it would have been much more like a tax than like an air-cleaner or a road-clearer; the public would have recognized it as such; and the idea would have been dead on arrival.
HOT lanes, by contrast, were already working for congestion purposes (their smog consequences are still not clear) on a small scale at full price. They offered immediate, tangible rewards in faster access, not only to users of the reserved fast lanes, but also to users of the non-reserved lanes, who get the fast-lane users out of their way. They had already become an instant hit with all kinds of users of the SR 91 (Riverside Freeway) project, saving all users up to 17-27 minutes of delay (one-way, as of June, 1997), and fast-lane users up to 13 additional minutes of delay on a ten-mile stretch of formerly jammed bottleneck (Sullivan, 1998, p. 3). They since have drawn 60-80% approval from commuters using the link (Sullivan, 1998, p. 7). Subsequently, they also become an instant hit on the I-15 (San Diego Freeway) in San Diego County. Add-a-lane HOT lanes were favored in most of the Task Force's focus groups, and by most respondents to the Task Force's surveys of public attitudes, provided the revenues would be rebated to the public or spent wisely for their advantage.
Experts at the time were cautious about drawing conclusions from the I-15 project, which was still on the drawing boards, and even the then up-and-running SR 91 project. They expected that it would take a year or two for its final use patterns to get settled, and that more polls and traffic surveys would be needed before any firm judgements could be made. The I-15, after some initial adjustments, appears to be an unqualified success. The toll lanes of the SR 91 have likewise been an unqualified success. But the free lanes, after dramatic initial success, have been badly gummed up by the growth of traffic, and especially by the opening of the Eastern Toll Road link, which lacked a connector to the SR 91 toll lanes. These problems could be fixed by yet further widening, pricing the free lanes, or both, but both of these have been stymied by problems of co-ordinating the state freeway link with the two unrelated toll links. After a series of controversial maneuvers, neither the state nor the SR 91 private operator, the California Private Transportation Company, feels free to make the necessary changes under the terms of existing law and CPTC's franchise (1).
It should be noted that both of the extant California HOT lanes are add-a-lane expansions to existing links. The REACH Task Force also considered take-a-lane HOT lanes and thought them worthy of future study. HOT lanes require available unused space on HOV lanes to work, and some SCAG experts believe that HOV lanes in the Basin (mostly HOV-2 lanes) are almost full, running at 60-90% of capacity. If so, little unused space will be available till some HOV-2 lanes overload and are forced to move to HOV-3's.
Nevertheless, both in theory and in practice so far, HOT lanes still look like something which actually does speed up traffic and which the public likes, both on and off the corridor served -- just as congestion-charge advocates predicted two decades ago when HOT lanes and congestion charges were considered politically unthinkable. If the public continues to like HOT lanes, it will probably ask for more, get them, and move toward larger-scale congestion pricing by creating an infrastructure corridor-by-corridor.
How far should HOT lanes be taken? The maximum answer, consistent with, but not required by the Task Force's examine-and-develop recommendation, would be all the way to full-scale congestion charges, as fast as the system's infrastructure can be built. It would shorten the long, punishing wait to save the billions of dollars of annual lost time and health, and it would avoid many of the hybrid start-up problems of projects like the SR 91. A more cautious, and perhaps more appropriate, answer, also consistent with the Task Force's recommendation, might be: as far and as fast as people want to take them. This is also a hedge against uncertainties as to how crowded the roads might actually be in 2010 (Meyer, 1994; Gordon and Richardson, 1994). If SCAG's forecasts are correct, and average peak-hour speed basinwide is reduced to 11 miles per hour, it is hard to imagine people wanting to put up with it. How many people in New Jersey would dream of taking Route 1, which is "free," when they can get to Delaware two hours faster by paying a toll and taking the Jersey Turnpike? How many of them would be happier if someone could make the Turnpike's "Lexus Lanes" disappear? How many users of the SR 91, now saving an hour a day of commuting time, would actually want the much-criticized project to go away? How many of them, along with their gridlocked friends and relatives, would not wish for a few more HOT lanes along their path? Once people get a taste of life in the fast lane, they may well want a lot more of it, and a lot less of life in the slow lane. As one might guess from the section on pricing surface streets, the more lanes that are priced to speed them up, the more traffic is likely to be diverted to non-priced lanes, slowing them down. This will increase the incentive to price the crowded, underpriced slow lanes also, in order to speed them up. The differences between the most cautious answer and the maximum answer may turn out to be much smaller in the long run than they might seem in the short.