Sunday, July 19, 2009




Diamond lanes for the rich will soon be reality. Here in the land of legendary freeways, it will soon be mainly those willing and able to pay who can make really good time in congested areas.

That's the meaning of a plan promoted by Republicans who ran the federal Department of Transportation under ex-President George W. Bush and accepted gleefully by the Democrats who run the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Southern California.

By the end of next year, more than 60 miles of existing carpool lanes along two major Los Angeles area freeways - Interstates 10 and 110, better known as the San Bernardino and Harbor freeways - will be turned into toll lanes for cars with one or two occupants. Cars containing two persons will still be able to use some stretches free and those with three will continue to get free use in all areas.

The upshot, though, is that solitary commuters able to pay tolls will enjoy all the benefits that now accrue only to carpools and owners of the most fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrid cars.

This won't sit well with commuters who already complain that hybrids with stickers issued prior to February 2007 have already so crowded things that carpool lanes often aren't much faster than others.

But this story is no harder to understand than many others: Follow the money.

The Republican-led feds dangled $210 million in front of the MTA, which is far better known for running a bus line than managing freeways. Democrats now in power have not changed this program because of its claim of easing rush-hour congestion and thus diminishing both automotive smog and greenhouse gas emissions. Which means that what's starting on two Southern California freeways will soon become policy in many other places.

No one yet knows if the traffic-easing claims are true, but the best guess of many veteran commuters is they're wrong. Anyone who's been in the traffic jams that plague much of Southern California, the San Francisco Bay area and the Sacramento region knows allowing single-occupant cars onto carpool lanes won't ease the flow of ordinary lanes much, if at all. Putting more than 50,000 hybrid Toyota Priuses and Honda Civics there certainly didn't speed things up in the other lanes, but it has slowed down the previously speedy high occupancy ones.

This program is billed as an experiment, but the history of traffic management "experiments" over the last 20 years shows few disappear, even if they're ineffective.

So the rich will soon be moving more quickly than ordinary folks, even if they're not going quite as fast as carpool lanes once ran.

And what does everyone else get in exchange? The MTA plans to buy 57 new buses to use toll/carpool lanes and will spent $80 million on a new bus parking facility to house its vehicles.

All this without so much as an environmental impact study, the normal requirement before any major project affecting hundreds - let alone millions - of Californians can proceed.

At least the new plan isn't quite as bad as it was when originally proposed. In early 2008, the former Bush administration and the MTA said they intended to take existing carpool lanes and make them available only to those paying tolls. The new version still leaves them open to carpools.

So this isn't precisely a bait-and-switch, as first planned. That proposal would have taken carpool lanes paid for with tax dollars and turned them over exclusively to those who can afford to pay extra. But it still makes the carpool lanes something far different from what voters thought they were buying when they aproved new gas taxes and bunches of highway bonds over the past decade.

Beyond all that, though, is the simple idea of justice. It's bad enough that gas taxes are as regressive as can be, with rich and poor paying precisely the same levy on each gallon. This plan will also let the rich zip right past the working poor when carpool lanes are running properly, morning and evening. The best ordinary commuters can hope for is that it so congests carpool lanes that wealthy drivers eventually conclude paying tolls isn't worth the trouble.

The bottom line: Here we have further evidence that money can persuade elected officials to do almost anything. Just think how much better off we might be if those same politicians actually tried to do something creative about traffic jams, like changing the work hours of government employees for a start, a simple notion that could instantly switch tens of thousands of rush-hour commuters into off-peak times.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

No comments:

Post a Comment