Diamond Lanes for the Rich

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The Los Angeles Times

Diamond Lanes for the Rich

by
Tim Rutten

The late Michael Harrington, who examined the roots of American inequality more closely than anyone before or since, loved nothing better than to end the day with a few beers and a good argument. On one such occasion, he raised his glass, looked at the reporter across the table and said, "The great thing about beer is that it's one of the few good things in life that the rich do not begrudge the poor."

When the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted Thursday to convert carpool lanes to toll routes on as many as three Los Angeles freeways, the question of just what that decision begrudges to whom was lost in a flurry of self-congratulation.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the move "a great opportunity to think outside the box," and added: "Part of the reason Los Angeles has not been able to grapple with gridlock is because we've been unable to make the tough decisions."

Right. It takes unconventional and courageous thinking to come up with a plan that clears a highway lane for the well-off, while the middle class and working poor are left to inhale each other's $5-a-gallon exhaust fumes.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina called the plan "a good beginning." On what? On making the daily lives of the hundreds of thousands of moderate-income commuters in her district even more intolerable?

The worst thing about this ill-considered decision to allocate freedom of movement according to income is that it represents local public policy made for the worst of all possible reasons -- simply because there's federal money available to do it.

There's never been any great debate on the MTA board about the wider implications of toll lanes or of the benefits of so-called congestion pricing -- which is a euphemism for reducing traffic by making it costly to use certain streets or even enter certain neighborhoods at peak travel hours. (London now uses this scheme to make it painfully expensive for all but the affluent to commute into the city on a daily basis by private car during business hours.) The issue has arisen now simply because there's free money to be had.

Here's how it unfolded. Federal transportation authorities have lately become enamored of imposing congestion pricing through toll roads, and have been offering the states funds to experiment with the concept. When New York's Legislature declined this month to endorse an agreement that also included congestion fees for parts of Manhattan, money became available for other municipalities, and the MTA board jumped outside the box to grab $213.6 million of it. As a consequence, existing carpool lanes on the Foothill, San Bernardino and, perhaps, Harbor freeways will be converted to toll routes, with the highest charges levied at peak commuting times.

Carpool lanes are a sensible and equitable way to encourage responsible behavior. People who choose to ride to work with other people or those who purchase low-emission, high-mileage vehicles have the opportunity to travel more conveniently while reducing congestion, pollution and fuel consumption.

Note the word choose.

Congestion pricing will reduce traffic as well, but it will do so by allocating a precious resource by income. In California, we long have used everybody's tax money -- mainly from gasoline purchases -- to build and maintain roads.

Moreover, in Southern California, the middle class and working poor have no choice but to use the freeways to get back and forth to work and school because, decade after decade, public officials have encouraged urban sprawl while neglecting public transit. For most commuters today, the highway is the only way.

California's great public resources -- free schools and universities, libraries, the freeway network -- once were creators of opportunity. And because so many availed themselves of that opportunity, these resources became powerful engines of equality -- distributors, if you will, of the American dream.

Today, as The Times recently reported, public schools are going hat in hand to parents hoping to make up for the shortfalls in public funds. Affluent parents in affluent neighborhoods will find that money; the children of the poor will do without and fall further behind.

Now the MTA proposes to address the all-too-real problem of gridlock on the cheap -- and on the backs of working people.

Since when was that "a hard decision"?

It's the sort of thinking that will make Los Angeles and Southern California the sort of place Harrington described in "The Other America" -- one where "life is lived in common, but not in community."

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times

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