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Not-so-free ways

Freeway egalitarians are not happy with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whose board voted unanimously to convert carpool lanes on at least two local freeways into toll lanes. The opposition is wrongheaded in some ways, though we too would prefer a different approach to toll lanes than the one being taken.

A stretch of the 10 Freeway between downtown L.A. and the 605 will trade its diamond lane for a toll lane by 2010, as will a section of the 210 between Pasadena and the 605. If the MTA has money left over, it will also convert a section of the 110 south of downtown. Last week’s decision, made after the county was awarded more than $200 million under a federal program to encourage congestion-pricing schemes, was met by an outcry from critics who worry that the lanes simply represent a new benefit for the wealthy. We share their discomfort over converting public roadways to toll lanes, but the proposal could bring benefits to all commuters, not just the wealthy.

Our existing carpool-lane system is broken. Surveys show that the lanes have done little to encourage workers to carpool; instead, they are mostly used by families with children. Moreover, carpool lanes are so crammed with families and hybrid cars (which are allowed to use the lanes even when being driven solo) that they’re frequently just as jammed as the rest of the freeway. Tolls automatically fix that problem because the market is self-regulating. If the lane gets too crowded, people will stop paying the toll to use it until it clears up.

Toll lanes are not an attack on the poor. Surveys of existing toll systems show that drivers of all incomes use them. Further, some of the proceeds from the tolls will be used to fund public transportation, providing alternatives that help the poor. And local transit planners are trying to arrange it so that vehicles with three or more passengers would get to use the toll lanes for free. Thus low-income people could still use them by organizing carpools.

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That said, taking away a free benefit for a scheme that probably won’t dramatically reduce congestion isn’t the best of all possible moves. The big bonus of toll roads and lanes is that they’re self-financing. The express toll lanes on the 91 Freeway between Orange and Riverside counties were built by a private entity, not a government agency. It’s impossible to argue that anything was taken away from the poor to aid the rich because the lanes wouldn’t exist if not for the tolls. And their arrival has speeded traffic even for those who don’t use them.

We’re happy to see county transportation officials experimenting with new ideas. But the next time they take on congestion pricing, they could have a much greater impact by building new lanes funded by tolls than by converting more carpool lanes.


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