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Planned carpool-lane fee is driving motorists mad

Times Staff Writer

A few weeks ago we wrote about a little plan being hatched by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority: They’d like to begin charging motorists to use carpool lanes on stretches of three freeways in Los Angeles County.

The idea is called congestion pricing and it would affect stretches of the 110 south of downtown and the 10 and 210 in San Gabriel Valley. Single-occupant vehicles would pay the most, with lower prices for carpoolers.

The price would vary depending on traffic. When demand is high, such as during rush hour, the cost goes up. Such programs are based on the premise that the laws of supply and demand can help smooth out traffic flow.

The MTA this week is sending an application for federal money to the U.S. Department of Transportation to put its plan in place. In the meantime, we asked readers for their thoughts . . .

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And they all thought it was just a peachy idea, right?

No. Nearly every reader who e-mailed us said they hated it.

“Are city officials actually this stupid to suggest that the carpool lane become a toll lane? Punish the people that carpool and drive hybrids?” wrote David Adams of West Los Angeles.

“Most of the people who will use these new toll lanes probably won’t even pay the fee themselves,” wrote Jake Rikter, an ex-Angeleno who lives on Long Island, N.Y. “That expense will get passed on to the studio, the boutique hotel chain, the financial institution, the ‘premium’ sweat pants designer and anywhere else society’s wealthy are working.”

Former L.A. City Councilwoman Joy Picus also chipped in her two cents: “During the 16 years I was on the City Council, I was the major advocate for carpooling. But it was like hitting your head against a wall. A few people did carpool, including me, but it never really took off.”

Picus said she believes in congestion pricing, but that it would be counter-productive to charge people who carpool.

These responses were just a warm-up for reader Russell Johnson, who said congestion pricing doesn’t begin to tackle the underlying reasons for overwhelming traffic.

“The other big help would be a $2.00 per gallon tax on gas, so people would really think about where they had to go,” Johnson wrote.

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“Even this solution doesn’t solve the ultimate problem, which is that there are too, too many people in L.A.,” he added. “We need to stop big development, and give out lots of family planning advice and condoms.”

Hmmm. That’s a provocative idea -- pay a toll, get a condom.

On another traffic-related note, how well are traffic lights synchronized in the Southland?

We don’t know -- and that’s why we’re asking for your help.

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Syncing lights is, of course, a relatively simple way to keep traffic moving.

So, we’d like to know from consumers -- that’s you, dear motorist -- which cities and counties do it well and which are technological nincompoops.

My e-mail address is below.

What recent court ruling in Texas should get the attention of public officials?

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A state judge in October ruled that several city officials in Dallas must surrender e-mails from their personal accounts to comply with a public records request from the Dallas Morning News.

The Morning News asked for the e-mails to determine if officials were using their personal e-mail accounts to privately conduct city business -- in this case, the city was debating a tax abatement program that would benefit a local business.

This is a fascinating issue. Many people in many walks of lives have personal e-mail accounts, including public officials. But open government advocates have long feared that public officials were using those personal accounts to do the public’s business in private.

The other advantage for elected officials is that it would presumably be hard for the public to ever get those e-mails from a private provider such as Google or Yahoo -- not to mention if the e-mails were sent from a home computer or personal cellphone.

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“I can’t think of any principled reason why e-mails shouldn’t be public,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. “The way that most states are coming down on this when it’s litigated is that if you are doing public business on e-mail, then it’s a public record. Period.”

As far as can be told, this issue hasn’t been legally tested in California. So we recently asked the office of City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo what it would do if a member of the public submitted a public records request for e-mails from a Los Angeles official’s private e-mail account.

“To our knowledge, this Office has never issued a legal opinion [on] this matter, and we do not feel it would be prudent for us to do so at this time,” wrote Delgadillo spokesman Nick Velasquez in an e-mail.

Asked why an opinion couldn’t be offered, Velasquez added: “Were we to be asked to provide our clients with a legal opinion on this matter, we would not be at liberty to discuss [it], due to attorney-client privilege.”

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And why’s that an interesting answer?

Because it presumes the city attorney works for city officials and not the public.

What got rolling earlier this month in Seattle?

A new $52-million streetcar line in the city’s South Lake Union neighborhood -- a community the city has been trying to redevelop. Amazingly, the City Council approved the project in 2005 and the line opened just two years later, with half the money for the project coming from property owners in the community.

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Attentive readers may recall that the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency released a $100,000-study in September 2006 saying that a streetcar might be a nice way to connect downtown neighborhoods.

The agency’s senior development officer Curt Gibbs said Friday that the agency is going to seek $500,000 for a more detailed study on routes and that it would hold a meeting in spring with downtown stakeholders about the streetcar.

Streetcars have opened in a slew of U.S. cities in the last decade.

Supporters say rail lines help emerging neighborhoods and reach a broader audience than buses; detractors say that’s hooey and that money spent on streetcars is better spent improving bus systems.

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How about a brief look ahead at what 2008 may bring in Los Angeles politics?

* With city revenues in steep decline (thanks in part to the slowing real estate market), Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is to earn his keep trying to preserve city services and his plan to expand the Los Angeles Police Department to 10,000 officers by 2010. As of Dec. 22, the force numbered 9,572 officers, up from 9,181 when the mayor took office in July 2005.

* The City Council may get around to doing what a number of Southland cities have already done to limit the size of monster homes popping up in older neighborhoods. However, a proposed ordinance, stuck in the council’s planning committee, wouldn’t regulate taste or architecture -- meaning you still might end up living next to something that looks more suitable for the Las Vegas strip.

* The MTA board is to vote on a long-range plan for mass transit projects, and it would be mighty interesting to see if Villaraigosa’s subway to the sea ranks high on the list. Also worth watching is if anyone -- politician or citizen -- puts a sales tax increase or bond initiative on the November ballot to pay for the subway.

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Quiz time. The city of Los Angeles’ float in the Tournament of Roses tomorrow is a tribute to the Port of L.A. and includes which of the following:

A) A cargo ship.

B) A live council member.

C) A tattoo parlor.

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C) A big smog cloud made of black roses.

Answers: A and B. Godspeed, Janice Hahn!

Next week: Our annual review of the city’s float.

steve.hymon@latimes.com

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