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Thinking the unthinkable: A toll road in the freeway’s birthplace

December 6, 1997

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Twice a day, David Myers gets into his 1990 Honda Civic, pops a book-on-tape into the stereo and does battle for one hour and 40 minutes with that 53-mile-long monster known as his commute.

Every bumper-to-bumper mile between his Palmdale home and his L.A. office, Myers dreams: Wouldn’t it be nice if there were another lane, a faster lane, that allowed him to zip past the other drivers?

A lane so nice that it would be worth paying for?

Someday soon, perhaps in the next couple of years, such a special lane may exist.

Traffic in Los Angeles County, birthplace of the freeway, has gotten so bad that people are thinking the unthinkable: a toll road.

As a city councilman from Palmdale and co-chairman of a task force trying to ease the region’s congestion, Myers is a leading proponent of a toll lane that would be part of the Antelope Valley Freeway. Car poolers could use it for free, but solo drivers would have to pay.

The lane is seen as a market solution to congestion. It would provide a speedier alternative for paying commuters while easing congestion on the free lanes.

``It’s something that seems infinitely do-able within a few years,″ Myers said.

Toll lanes or highways are not an alien notion to Southern Californians; San Diego and Orange counties already have them. But this would be the first toll way in Los Angeles County, where the first freeway was born in 1940.

``There’s a lot of symbolism about it,″ said Peter Samuel, editor of Toll Roads newsletter. ``People think of L.A. as being the home of the freeway. It would be sufficiently striking to make people think times are changing.″

He said there is great interest in the proposal throughout the West, where toll lanes are planned or under consideration in such cities as Phoenix, Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City and Boulder, Colo.

The idea is still a ways off in Los Angeles County. There are feasibility studies to complete and financing, design and construction issues to work out. For example, it is not clear yet whether an existing lane of the freeway would simply be designated a toll lane, or whether a whole new lane would be built alongside the freeway.

And there remain a number of critics who consider toll lanes elitist ``Lexus lanes″ that allow the rich to zoom past the poor.

``Toll roads are highway robbers. Toll lanes are no different,″ said Bill Lockyer, state Senate president pro tem.

But the mere fact that an important cross-section of leaders in Los Angeles County is seriously considering the concept is a break with tradition.

The freeway was born here 57 years ago with the opening of the Pasadena Freeway, then called the Arroyo Seco Parkway _ 8.2 curving miles from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena. Drivers could travel from point to point without hitting a stop light or cross traffic.

Before long, the slow, noisy streetcar yielded to the automobile, and a culture was born. The Pasadena Freeway became part of the great Los Angeles freeway system, hundreds of miles of wide-open concrete highways, tangled interchanges and towering overpasses.

Despite the name, the freeways were never really free. They were financed by taxes and bonds.

And nearly six decades of sprawl later, the freeways are clogged. Studies consistently pin L.A. with the nation’s worst highway congestion. The very benefit the freeway once offered _ travel free of fits and starts _ is as much a memory in many places as the streetcar.

``It’s really no surprise that the place that first experimented with a freeway system is also the first to figure out what comes next,″ said Michael Cameron of the Environmental Defense Fund. ``The (toll) lane is a step toward preserving the best attributes of the freeway system _ which is mobility. It is restoring the notion of freedom.″

Cameron, like Myers, is a member of the 70-member task force called REACH, for Reduce Emissions and Congestion. Since 1994, these business, government and environmental representatives have been trying to find solutions to traffic and pollution problems.

From their discussions, the Antelope Valley Freeway, which carries hundreds of thousands of commuters daily from the growing desert cities of Palmdale and Lancaster to Los Angeles, emerged as the leading candidate for a toll lane.

``What we’re trying to do is preserve the habitat for vehicles,″ said Deborah Redman, project manager for REACH. ``It’s making the freeways usable again. Right now, we’ve mucked it up.″

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