CITYWIDE Curing traffic ills in one of the nation’s most congested regions could be a matter of hitting drivers where it hurts — the wallet.

Creating toll lanes on existing freeways, imposing a local tax on gasoline and adopting curbside parking fees in commercial districts are just some of the suggestions outlined in a RAND Corp. study on improving transportation in Los Angeles County.

The Santa Monica-based think tank recently released a lengthy report that takes a comprehensive look at the area’s long-standing traffic circus that has seemingly grown worse over the past few decades.

“Moving Los Angeles: Short-Term Transportation Policy Options for Improving Transportation” identifies various reasons in which congestion has become so bad in the county and offers 13 different options — from creating bus-only lanes on busy corridors to developing a regional bike network — to achieve results within five years.

The study comes at a time when traffic has been a hot topic among residents who are preparing to make their decisions on a controversial ballot measure that would place an annual 75,000 square foot cap on commercial development. Measure T, which was authored by Santa Monica Coalition for Livable City, is on the ballot next month.

Voters will also be asked to increase the county sales tax by a half cent to pay for transit projects.

The source of traffic problems can be pinned on the population density in the metropolitan area combined with the fact that parking is relatively cheap and plentiful. The fact that Los Angeles is a polycentric area — there is more than one center with high population density — also adds to the effect, spreading traffic out and making it difficult to institute efficient transit networks. While rail transit has been constructed in the county, there is still a disconnect between Downtown Los Angeles and the Westside and the San Fernando Valley.

But the congestion of today could’ve been worse, according to Paul Sorenson, a transportation planning and policy researcher and one of the study’s lead authors.

Sorenson said transportation agencies in the county have done a good job of putting together strategies that haven’t been too controversial, such as freeway ramp metering and signal timing and control.

“All of these things have significant positive effect for a reason,” Sorenson said. “If we weren’t doing what we’ve already done with traffic congestion, it’s quite possible that traffic could be much worse than it is already.”

The study looked at transportation policies in cities around the globe, observing traffic patterns in places like London, Singapore, Stockholm, New York City and Seattle.

The set of recommendations seek to achieve at least one of four different objectives — managing peak-hour travel; raising transportation revenue; improving alternative transportation options; and using existing road capacity more efficiently.

The researchers found that one of the challenges in adopting traffic-reduction strategies is a phenomenon they call “triple convergence,” which occurs after congestion on a given road improves and drivers who once traveled on the street come back. The drivers “converge” back on the road during peak hours after they had previously altered their times of travel, sought other routes or different modes.

As a result, researchers state that the only way to effectively reach solutions in the long-term is through pricing strategies, which may prove unpopular among low-income drivers who feel they are disproportionately being punished. The revenue would be used to improve traffic conditions.

To address concerns of the impact on low-income drivers, policymakers will have to offer better transit options, researchers said.

One of those options could be to develop deeply discounted transit fares that employers can offer to their workers.

“It could be set up in a way where everyone would come out ahead,” Sorenson said.

While all the recommendations were designed to achieve results within five years, among those that would make the most immediate impact are to increase bus rapid transit in urban areas and create dedicated lanes on major boulevards.

The strategy would improve not only the speed of public transit in the county, but reliability. The study points out that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Rapid bus lines share the streets with cars and experience the same congestion and traffic. One place to start would be on Wilshire Boulevard, the study states.

When the MTA created the Rapid program, it decreased travel time by 20-25 percent and increased ridership by about an equal amount, Sorenson said.

“If you can take this next step, that would have a dramatic effect on bus speed and likely see proportional rise in ridership again,” he said. “That’s especially true now with higher gas prices and higher forces making people … look for better transit.”

A recommendation to adopt curb parking fees in commercial districts that would vary by time and location would also have an immediate impact, minimizing drivers who circle around the block continuously for a cheap and open space, Sorenson said.

A share of the revenue from parking fees would go back to pay for public amenities.

“It could be implemented relatively quickly and have quick effects,” Sorenson said.

The study did not focus on land-use policies related to zoning, parking and transit-oriented development, all of which are aspects of the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) that is currently being drafted by City Hall.

The LUCE has been a figure in debates over the upcoming ballot measure with the proponents arguing that the document doesn’t go far enough in addressing development issues in the city.

Supporters of Measure T argue that the initiative is needed to tackle congestion.

Ted Winterer, a City Council candidate and one of the lead sponsors of the measure, said the RAND study didn’t address the actual reason for traffic congestion — poor land use decisions.

“The study emphasizes expensive band-aid solutions such as toll lanes, higher priced parking, and congestion access fees like those in London,” Winterer said. “Santa Monica has a worsening imbalance between jobs and housing with almost twice as many people working here as we have living here — all of those tens of thousands of commuters clog our streets.”

Sorenson said that generally speaking, adding density does increase traffic because there are more trips taking place in and around the area.

One of the challenges in tackling the issue on a regional level is the size of the county, which has 88 cities, making coordination between all the agencies difficult.

“It’s not that Santa Monica has the worst traffic in the county, it’s Los Angeles County does,” Mayor Pro Tem Richard Bloom, who is running for re-election, said.

Bloom, who opposes Measure T, pointed out that City Hall has already instituted at least one of the strategies in the study — upgrading signalized timing.

“We need to keep our focus on both local and regional solutions to traffic and our best hope is to finalize our planning in the LUCE process, which includes a very forward thinking traffic management plan that incorporates a lot of the types of provisionary concepts that are in the RAND report.”

melodyh@smdp.com