A toll on roads, and our souls

You can hang any number of shiny baubles on a mistake, like ornaments on a Christmas tree, but when you’re done, all you’ve really got is a bad idea -- with glitter.

Congestion pricing is just that sort of bad idea. Here in Los Angeles, the idea of opening the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the freeways to toll-paying single drivers first surfaced some months ago, not because it had been carefully weighed or debated but because there was federal money available to fund a couple of demonstration projects.

The Bush administration liked toll roads because they dovetailed with an ideological predilection for market-oriented solutions to public policy issues. The Obama administration backed the idea because it likes shovel-ready projects that can play a role in the stimulus effort. So L.A. is getting $210.6 million in federal funds to convert the carpool lanes on the San Bernardino and Harbor freeways into high-occupancy toll lanes.


Those conversions will create 7,000 construction jobs between now and 2010. That’s good. On Saturday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will begin a series of public hearings on a tentative pricing plan for the two roads. It proposes to charge solo drivers 25 cents a mile to enter the lanes when traffic is lightest and $1.40 when traffic is heaviest.

Oddly enough, no solo drivers will be admitted when average speeds in the new high-occupancy toll lanes fall below 45 miles per hour. That’s to keep them from getting clogged, but the result is that there will be congestion pricing -- except when the highways are most congested.

This project simply is a backdoor way of introducing toll roads in Los Angeles County. That’s a policy that discriminates against the working poor in a particularly burdensome way, because our public agencies provide most neighborhoods with the sketchiest of public transit alternatives.

Moreover, it couldn’t happen at a worse time, because California’s draconian budget cuts in education, healthcare and every other public service are about to pull the remnants of equal opportunity from beneath many of our neighbors’ feet.

The MTA appears to be taking notice of a recently released Rand Corp. study of congestion pricing financed with a grant from the Environmental Defense Fund. The researchers urged public officials considering congestion-linked tolls to address the projects’ equity issues early in the process. But the study bent over backward to redefine equity in so many ways that congestion pricing actually, and misleadingly, seemed to benefit low-income people.

What’s more, Rand economist Thomas Light, one of the study’s coauthors, acknowledged that some individuals will be made worse off by the plan, and then added that “many of these people also are disadvantaged by the status quo, because they are hampered by both the existing traffic congestion and the taxes collected to fund transportation.”

In other words, those hurt the worst will be people who already are at the bottom of the economic pecking order. All the gaudy ornaments (like tricking up a toll road as a jobs program) and Socratic social sophistries (like, what is equity, after all?) aside, here’s a thought experiment on what this version of congestion pricing will mean for Los Angeles:

Let’s imagine the new lanes are built and the new tolls are in operation. You’re a single mother working in a downtown law office part time because your hours have been cut as one of the firm’s economy measures. Just about noon, you get a call from the day-care center, where your 3-year-old is running a high fever. You decide to give up two badly needed hours of work to pick her up early, hoping she won’t need a visit to the pediatrician because the state no longer funds healthcare for the working poor. About the same time you leave, the firm’s managing partner heads out for lunch and a round of golf at his club.

Despite the time of day, L.A.'s freeways are inexplicably clogged -- virtual gridlock for no apparent reason. The new toll lanes, however, are moving freely. For the senior partner, it’s a no-brainer. He pays the $1.40-a-mile toll without a first, let alone a second, thought and arrives at his club early enough for a Bloody Mary before lunch. Our single mom, however, looks at the bumper-to-bumper traffic around her, glances over at the freely moving toll lane and has to do the mental math to decide whether getting to her child in less than 90 minutes is worth being late with this month’s rent.

What the heck, she’s already disadvantaged by the status quo, so what’s another hour of anguish?

A society that can rationalize the imposition of such pain doesn’t need to worry over how to define equity; it needs to worry about its soul.