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Being right takes its toll

Well, I can’t say I didn’t know I was hurling my body in front of oncoming traffic Sunday when I printed two of the most radioactive words in the Southern California vocabulary.

Toll roads.

But until I read the e-mail that came in after the column, I didn’t realize so many drivers would swerve to run me over.

“What a bunch of hogwash,” wrote Dick Blankenship of Long Beach.

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I should ignore that one, I told myself, and find a more measured response.

“Your latest blunder,” quipped James Whitton, and thanks a lot, James.

“Have you gone Loco Moco?” asked Kali Guy.

Come on, someone out there has to have seen the wisdom of that column. All I said was that, given the huge funding shortfall for desperately needed highway and mass transit projects, toll roads should be ONE SMALL PART of a desperately needed master plan to raise money, create more travel options for everyone and help relieve the nation’s worst traffic.

“Have you lost your mind?” Fall1999 wanted to know.

Some of my critics made good points along with the barbs.

One guy suggested having a fleet of helicopters to remove wrecks. Former West Hollywood Mayor Jeffrey Prang suggested closing certain streets to everything except buses and shuttles. And Blankenship, despite calling toll roads “hogwash,” was the rare reader who recommended a huge hike in the gas tax -- $1 a gallon -- to entice people into carpools.

But about 90% of the mail delivered a merciless pummeling that has left me bruised and battered, though no less certain that I was as right as a man can be.

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Generally speaking, people believe they shouldn’t have to pay a nickel more for any public service. Yes, I know there’s waste, incompetence and worse in politics and government. And it’s hard to have much faith that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority can successfully execute its call for new toll lanes in Los Angeles County.

But I’m here to tell you that if you want any relief on the road, you’re going to have to pay for it. A report from the Southern California Assn. of Governments, which could be released and opened to public debate as early as today, will spell this out in frightening detail.

If no new sources of funding are found between now and the year 2035, Southern California will officially become hell’s parking lot. You’d move faster on horseback.

That prediction is based on an assumption that the population will grow by 6 million, which is debatable. With traffic so bad, people by the thousands might pack up and move to saner places.

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But Mark Pisano of SCAG doesn’t think so. He says that with two of the nation’s largest shipping ports and one of its biggest airports, we’re likely to continue growing. So Pisano’s agency is pushing a plan that would add transit and roads to the region without adding pollution.

Extending the planned Expo Line, building the subway to the sea, extending the Gold Line to Ontario and much, much more: All are all possible under the plan.

There’s just one problem.

Anyone out there got a spare $130 billion?

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That’s how much it would take, on top of roughly $400 billion in anticipated transportation funding over the next 28 years (provided future governors don’t keep stealing it, as the last two have).

You can all start screaming now, because I’m going to tell you where Pisano proposes to get that money.

For starters, a 10% increase in the gas tax.

Has the blood all rushed to your head?

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OK, go ahead and get the defibrillators ready now, because toll roads are in the plan too.

There’d be an expansion of the toll roads in Orange and Riverside counties and new toll facilities in L.A. County, including one in a proposed tunnel that would extend the 710 Freeway. There’d also be higher container fees at the ports and tolls for an exclusive truck lane that clears more space for automobiles on existing lanes of the 710.

Congestion pricing isn’t specifically in the plan but might also come under consideration, according to Pisano. The idea, which I support despite the obvious threat to my life and limbs, is to use electronic sensors to charge fees that are highest for drivers who hit the road when traffic is worst.

Feel free to keep calling me an elitist, but congestion pricing would not only encourage drivers to juggle schedules, work from home, ride a bike or take the bus, it would also raise money for more transit projects, which would benefit people at the lowest income levels.

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If these sound like extreme measures, brace yourself for some really grim news.

Even if everything in the plan becomes reality -- which is a real challenge, given that SCAG has no teeth, and there’s no legislative or regional entity to implement the ideas -- traffic will be slightly worse in 2035 than it is now.

That’s right. Worse.

But not making that investment could be catastrophic, Pisano says.

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Precisely. The time has come for bold ideas and the courage to execute them.

And since it looks like it may take some time to bring people around to the idea of toll roads, here are a few other proposals:

Place thousands of free communal bikes at locations around the region, as they’ve done in Paris.

Offer free condoms on every bus, train and paddy wagon.

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Forbid new developments, anywhere, without new transit and asphalt.

Get L.A. city transit advisor Jaime de la Vega out of his Hummer by 2016.

Hire Britney Spears to run SCAG. It’s the only way anyone will ever pay any attention.

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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