Pricing may not hurt the poor

Times Staff Writer

One of the long-held arguments against congestion pricing or toll lanes is that they’re not fair to low-income users. The tolls are the same for everybody, and low-income earners get hit the hardest, so goes that line of thinking.

In fact, pretty much every politician I spoke to in the San Gabriel Valley has raised that point when talking about the proposal to convert the carpool lane on the 10 and possibly the 210 freeways into toll lanes.

Two local academics have concluded otherwise: Tolls are a pretty fair way of raising money to build road capacity. In fact, they say, it’s fairer than most other funding schemes.

The study comes from Lisa Schweitzer, an assistant professor of policy, planning and development at USC, and Brian Taylor, a professor of urban planning who heads UCLA’s Transportation Studies center. Taylor, in particular, has long been a vocal advocate of congestion pricing. The study has been published online in Transportation, an academic journal.


Their study is based on the toll lanes on the 91 Freeway in Orange County. The two authors found that medium- and high-income earners tend to use the lanes the most -- and therefore are the ones paying for the debt service on the lanes.

They also looked at a scenario in which sales taxes collected from across O.C. would be used to pay for the toll lanes. In that case, they concluded, low-income earners would be paying millions of dollars in taxes for something they don’t use. Here’s the key passage from their paper: “Using sales taxes to fund roadways creates substantial savings to drivers by shifting some of the costs of driving from drivers to consumers at large, and in the process disproportionately favors the more affluent at the expense of the impoverished.”

I spoke to Schweitzer, and she made it clear that she doesn’t buy the congestion-pricing-hurts-the-poor scenario. In her view, congestion pricing is a way to ration a resource often in short supply -- space on the road. She likes it because those who use it pay for it, and that puts a direct cost on driving.

“I think the equity issue is a magic bullet,” she said. “Food prices go up, housing prices have gone up since Jesus was a carpenter, but no one” -- politicians, that is - “ever brings that up.”

Next time your car gets hit by a bus . . .

A colleague of mine recently had one of his side-view mirrors chopped off by a Metro bus. Later, when he sought Metro’s accident report to give to his insurance company, the agency wouldn’t give him the report. Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Marc Littman said internal accident reports are considered confidential. Therefore, the agency wouldn’t provide the report, even if someone submitted a public records request.

“If someone submits a public records request for the accident reports, Metro will deny it because it could end up in litigation,” Littman wrote in an e-mail. “If a report had been filed by the claimant, then they can get a copy of what they submitted; otherwise, they’d have to get a court subpoena.”

Bottom line: If you get into an accident with a bus -- the MTA’s or anyone else’s -- get a police report, if possible.


A tunnel too far?

The four-mile tunnel under the San Bernardino Mountains is for water, and it took the MWD almost five years to finish. I mention it here because various tunnels in the Southland are still on the table, including the proposed subway extension, a tunnel under South Pasadena for the 710 Freeway and another to connect O.C. and Riverside County.