Diamond lanes for the rich: A classic bait and switch
Diamond lanes for the rich. That’s not what the national Republicans who proposed it call their current idea, which sees them dangling hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives before state and local officials to get them to charge tolls for use of existing carpool lanes.
Rather, they use high-sounding language to call this bum idea “congestion reduction” pricing.
Meanwhile, the California Democrats who have already decided to roll over and take the money call it “a great opportunity to think outside the box.”
In fact, this will neither reduce congestion nor is it thinking outside any box. It is a bait and switch, pure and simple. People have paid for one thing and soon may get something very different and inferior.
You can be sure of one thing: If this so-called experiment is adopted where now planned on heavily used Los Angeles County freeways, drivers in San Diego, the San Francisco Bay area and every other place with heavy traffic will be seeing the same thing very soon.
The main thing to remember here is this: Carpool and bus lanes on the San Bernar-dino and Foothill freeways were built with gas tax money paid by people who voted to tax themselves for roadways open to all. Start charging tolls in high-occupancy lanes and you’re taking the free out of freeways. That’s a bait and switch.
Here’s another planned bait and switch: Owners of hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius and some Honda Civic models would no longer be able to drive solo in the affected carpool lanes, even if they have state stickers permitting just that. Never mind that many bought the cars at least partly because that privilege was available or that they paid for their decals.
There was a time when politicians knew better than to get between Californians and their desire to drive. But increasing gridlock has changed this, causing officials to seek any way they can find to reduce traffic loads.
This one shouldn’t even be considered. Yes, President Bush’s Department of Tran-sportation plans to give the Los Angeles region $200 million to try its new idea, money the region’s Metropolitcan Tran-sportation Authority can spend just about any way it wants. Yes, the money has local officials drooling. “The most important aspect of this is the breadth of the money,” said Wendy Greuel, a Democratic member of the Los Angeles City Council.
She’s wrong, of course. The most important aspect of this is that people who paid gas tax money for free highways won’t be getting completely free use of them anymore.
The stated excuse for this planned betrayal is that carpool lanes are becoming almost as molasses-like as regular ones. Especially with high gas prices pushing more commuters to share rides.
Charge tolls, the proposal claims, and you’ll at least free up the carpool lanes. Never mind, of course, the increased traffic this would dump into other lanes, already at a standstill before carpool lanes arrived.
Officials backing this like to say the idea works well with toll lanes running along a freeway linking Orange and Riverside. But those lanes were privately financed and designed for tolls from the start. The toll-financed Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay bridges also never offered free use, just like several other pay-to-drive California spans.
No one ever before has had the audacity even to try making an existing free lane over into a toll one. If there’s a parallel to this – and it’s not precise – the closest might be the 1970s effort to convert two existing general use lanes on the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles County into carpool lanes. Even without tolls, that attempt died after massive public protests, and the state ever since has built new lanes whenever it tries to push carpooling.
Beyond the bait and switch at work here is the simple idea of injustice. It’s bad enough that gas taxes are regressive as can be, with rich and poor paying precisely the same amount. But this proposal would allow the rich to zip right past the working poor while both head for work, morning and evening. Worse, the planned tolls would be higher in rush hours than off-peak times, making this even more unjust and elitist.
The bottom line: While it’s plain money can convince elected officials to do almost anything, voters should make it clear they will bounce, recall or otherwise take revenge on any politician who tries to bait and switch them in so fundamental a way as this. Meanwhile, politicians need to think up far better ways to reduce traffic. How about changing the hours of government workers for a start, a simple notion that could instantly switch thousands of rush-hour commuters into off-peak times?
Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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