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You take SUV road, I’ll take the toll road

When you drive a Hummer, people take notice. I was stopped at an intersection in Silver Lake on Friday morning when L.A. City Councilman Tom Labonge did a double-take from his own car.

“I borrowed it from Jaime de la Vega!” I shouted out the window, and Labonge snapped a photo.

“Now I’ve got the evidence,” he said. (See Labonge’s photo at the end of the column.)

I hadn’t actually borrowed the Hummer from L.A.'s deputy mayor for transportation. I rented my own as a favor to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

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As I’ve said before, it must be pretty embarrassing for Villaraigosa to have a transportation guru driving a small tank to work, especially on smoggy days. I decided to test-drive the same model, an H3, and who knew? If I liked it, I might offer to trade my mid-size sedan to De la Vega and then donate his Hummer to an infantry division.

One advantage to a Hummer, I must admit, is the elevation. It’s a rolling bunker with slits for windows and a step to get you up into the cab, so I got a good look at miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic heading east on the 101 Freeway. It was a good perch from which to scope out traffic patterns and contemplate a congestion-relief theory I’ve been investigating.

The only problem was that I couldn’t focus. I was behind the wheel of a Hummer, after all. Even though the H3 isn’t the biggest beast in the Hummer family, Jeep Grand Cherokees looked like rodents and Mini Coopers like mosquitoes. I felt manlier than usual and had a craving for some hot wings at Hooters.

I was tempted to drop by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s house to see if he wanted to roll one of his Hummers out of the garage and go off-roading.

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Then, driving along Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana, I spotted Esther’s Haircutting Studio. Wait a minute, isn’t that where Britney Spears had her head shaved?

I was feeling impulsive and reckless, just like Britney. So I parked the Hummer and strode up to the door. A woman -- Esther, I presume -- asked what I wanted.

A shaved head, I said. Like Britney.

I should note here that I’d had trouble renting a Hummer because it was Oscar weekend and almost all of them were booked. With an H3 and a shaved head, people might think I was up for best director or something.

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Esther didn’t seem to like the idea.

What, would I look that bad with a shaved head?

“You’re already bald,” she said.

Would she have insulted me like that if she’d known I drive a Hummer?

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Traffic was miserable on the way downtown. I hit the 101 Freeway in Woodland Hills, where De la Vega used to live, and the six-mile trip to Sherman Oaks -- where De la Vega now lives -- took 20 minutes. It was 40 more minutes to City Hall from there, a distance of 16 miles.

If De la Vega spent as much time talking to Brian Taylor, of UCLA’s Institute for Transportation Studies, as he does sitting in his Hummer, we might all be better off.

Taylor and other local transit experts insist it’s possible to design a much smarter system for getting all of us where we need to go. I’ll simplify the idea here, but you can find reams of information at www.its.ucla.edu.

Although he doesn’t necessarily agree on all the details, Taylor supports Gov. Schwarzenegger’s idea of using toll roads to fund transportation projects. “It’s a trend in many other parts of the world,” he told me in his UCLA office.

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On a five- or six-lane highway, Taylor said, two lanes should be reserved for carpools, buses and drivers willing to pay a premium.

Let’s say it’s 4 p.m. and you need to get from Santa Monica to downtown L.A. on the 10. It might cost you $7 or $8 to breeze along in the premium lanes. You’d pass an electronic sensor and get your bill in the mail.

In theory, because they’d be going faster, more cars would be able to move through the two fast lanes than through the remaining slower lanes, and all the lanes could move faster than they otherwise would. That’s because the system would encourage carpooling and discourage peak commuting, when the price goes up.

And all the money that’s generated would pay for additional buses and more lanes where possible.

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Taylor argues that it’s a more equitable system than funding transportation with a sales tax that unfairly sticks it to people with smaller incomes.

But this is a model similar to the 91 Express Lanes in the middle of the Riverside Freeway, and I pointed out to Taylor how that project -- and other tollways in the state -- hadn’t been entirely successful.

Some motorists on the 91 complain that the fees have shot up too high, and others say traffic is still a mess.

Taylor argued that the problem wasn’t the model, but tremendous population growth. He said much more extensive use of tolling throughout Southern California would benefit everyone.

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Commuters want choices, said Martin Wachs, a Rand Corp. transportation expert who agrees with Taylor that better management of existing roadway -- along with giving employees free bus passes instead of free parking -- could make a huge difference.

The trick, he said, is persuading politicians to get behind an idea that has the word “toll” attached to it. But Taylor has been reading The Times’ Bottleneck Blog, a forum for those who want to blow off steam or share solutions, and thinks public outrage might have hit the point where new strategies are possible.

I don’t know if Jaime de la Vega has any free days this week, but I could explain all of this in the time it takes him to get to work in the morning.

Your Hummer or mine, Jaime?

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And by the way, I’ve cooled on the idea of buying. In two days of driving, I got 13.77 miles to the gallon. The price of gas being what it is, who can afford such a hog?

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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