Idea for the Road: There’s No Such Thing as a Free Way in L.A.

It’s not even rush hour, but I’m jammed up on the I-5 between L.A. and Downey. This is irritating enough, obviously, but now the vehicle in the next lane keeps crowding me.

I look across and find an anorexic woman on a cell phone, driving a humongous Ford Extinction. You’ve seen her, I’m sure. And if there’s not a model called Extinction, there ought to be.

So I turn on the radio and learn:

A) Traffic is bad everywhere, but, B) It’s going to be mostly sunny today and tomorrow.


It’s not clear to me why such reports don’t also inform us that fish are in the ocean and day will follow night. Of course there’s horrible traffic everywhere. Los Angeles just topped the national charts for the 15th year in a row, nosing out the San Francisco-Oakland area, with Angelenos stuck in traffic an average of 136 hours a year.

And guess what. It’s going to get so disastrously worse, we’re going to look back longingly on the mess we’ve got now.

The most frightening projections tell us that, in the next 20-30 years, barring an economic collapse or some unforeseen calamity, Southern California will add on the current population of Chicago, and the entire state will add the current population of Texas.

There’s not a transit master plan in place that would keep up with the expected growth, and that includes the proposal to double-deck the 101 Freeway through the San Fernando Valley. By the time it’s completed, we’d need to go to a triple-decker, anyway, so why not play it safe and go four-high, with parking on Level 4?

Transportation planning is so shortsighted, traffic experts say, that even if we complete the billions of dollars worth of projects now scheduled in the Los Angeles area, average freeway speeds will drop from the current 30 mph to 20 mph or less in the year 2025.

Misery will abound. We’ll all point fingers and wonder why nobody did anything.

So the question is, is there any way to keep ourselves from descending into eternal gridlock hell? And the answer is yes, but you’ll never hear these solutions from any politician.

“Freeways should remain free,” California Gov. Gray Davis has said in denouncing the state’s tollways.


As is often the case, the governor could not possibly be more wrong.

Everything about driving ought to cost more, not less. Any nitwit with $6 in a bank account can drive a $35,000 set of wheels off a new-car lot, fill the tank for $25, and cruise all day. You don’t even have to know how to drive, which is the case with half the people on the road.

Speaking of gas, you know how we all gripe when a gallon of petrol creeps up to $1.60, then $1.70, and then $1.80?

I’d bump it up to $2, just to get everyone’s attention, and then I’d go to $3 and keep it there. But the increase wouldn’t feed the fat of oil company executives. It would be added to the meager 37-cent tax we now pay per gallon.


So now, at $3 a gallon, piloting that Ford Extinction like a bug driving a dump truck is even more ridiculous. But if you insist, go ahead. The tax you generate can be pumped into buses, trains, and subway cars, and we can do smart, previously unheard of things, such as extend the airport rail line so that it actually MAKES IT TO THE AIRPORT!

Brian Taylor of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies says drivers are getting a great bargain as things stand. For a lot of employees, there’s free parking at work, even if it means the boss loses money on the deal. And drivers don’t pay for environmental or health-care costs caused by the pollution they spew.

It’s almost a free ride, which is why Taylor is such a fan of tollways.

“Everybody’s badmouthing them, but the transportation world is going gaga,” he said of experiments like the private 91 Express Lanes between Anaheim and Riverside County.


When the private two-lane tollway was built several years ago, the Orange County Transportation Authority agreed not to widen or improve the adjacent free roadway, so as not to compete with the tollway. Now the OCTA is buying back the tollway so it can make those improvements, and tollways are considered an endangered species in California.

But Taylor would like to see more tollways, more options for drivers, and more direct user fees, not fewer. If you want to live in Agoura Hills and work in Long Beach, fine. But you’ll pass several electronic toll booths on the 101 and the 405, and you’ll get the tab in the mail.

“It ought to be like a cell phone bill, where you pay for exactly what you consumed. And if you want to travel during peak hours, you’d pay a premium.”

This would encourage people to live closer to work, to carpool, and to avoid using the highways when they’re most congested.


Those who say the heck with it, and decide to pay premium, will help subsidize a transit system that makes it more attractive to get out of your car.

Roughly 19 million people live in Southern California today. In the next 20 years, as many as 7 million more will be moving in.

If we don’t act soon, early Californians, who sped about on burros, are going to seem like an advanced culture.



Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at