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Are toll lanes elitist or progressive?

Are toll lanes elitist or progressive?
The plan to construct toll lanes along a widened, 14-mile section of the 405 Freeway in Orange County has met with fierce public opposition but appears to be going forward. (Los Angeles Times)

Allowing motorists to speed to work past clogged lanes of traffic, if they're willing to pay thousands of dollars a year, could be seen as a way to raise money for other transit projects that benefit the public widely, or as the opposite: using the funds that all Californians pay toward transportation for the benefit of the well-heeled.

The plan to construct toll lanes along a widened, 14-mile section of the 405 Freeway in Orange County has met with fierce public opposition but appears to be going forward.  Local money would be used to add a lane in each direction from Costa Mesa through Seal Beach; then Caltrans would take advantage of the freeway's widened footprint to fund a toll lane. The exact price for using what some derisively call the "Lexus lanes" has not been made clear, but according to a report by KTLA, estimates run up to $11 each way for rush-hour commuters.

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At its regular meeting Monday, the Times editorial board raised the question of whether this was a good idea, and whether we should deliver a verdict on it via an editorial. One of the key questions is always what the board has said in the past about any given topic, so it was agreed that we would look that up first and discuss it by email later. In 2011, the board favored toll lanes on the 110 and 10 freeways, at least for a trial period, saying they might free up the other lanes a bit, raise money and give people who absolutely had to get somewhere a chance to do so. What ensued was a lively email debate in which the two sides were not able to reach a consensus, or even a majority decision. Not yet, anyway.

Here is a peek at the opinion-making process here—as well as an invitation to add new insights and perhaps even a way of resolving the issue before we start a food fight—via excerpts from that conversation. All of the participants are editorial writers except for Nicholas Goldberg, the editorial page editor.

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Karin Klein:  This is what we wrote…about the 110 and 10 toll lane proposal (favoring a trial run). I don't really agree with it; I think freeways built with taxpayer money should either charge a very modest toll to all drivers, as some East Coast highways do, or none at all. $18 a day (based on one published report) or so adds up to $90 a week, $360 a month, more than $4,000 a year. Not in the reach of most folks.

Goldberg: I agree with Karin. I am not in favor of fast lanes for those who pay more. Not everything should be sold on a market like a commodity.

Robert Greene: I was on the other side (opposed to toll lanes) on this one. Still am.

Kerry Cavanaugh: Before we change our stance on toll lanes, here are some points to consider. Metro is making lots of money off the tolls, which is supposed to go back into funding public transit projects near the route. The tolls also led to nearly 30% increase in ridership on the Silver Line – a bus that travels in toll lane.

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Also, when we looked at Metro's fare increase a few months ago, we urged the agency to consider more tolling. So who should be bearing the burden if not riders? To start, Metro should look at ways to shift some transit system costs onto drivers, which may sound unfair until you consider that they're getting a heavily subsidized ride on publicly built and maintained roads. If added fees make it less appealing for people to drive, that's a good thing; fewer cars on the road reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. Metro should lobby for higher fuel taxes to fund mass transit, look at expanding tolling or congestion pricing to help pay for bus and rail rides, and charge for Metro parking lots.

Jon Healey: Agreed on Kerry's points.

The reasons we went the way we did are articulated well in the piece Karin sent around. Economists love the idea of congestion pricing because it's an efficient way to change voluntary behavior – people running errands that they could do at any point in the day, or folks choosing to drive when they could just as easily take mass transit. The toll lanes on the 110 don't seem to work that way, though – if they did, they'd be open to everyone at off-peak times, and I don't think they are.

The other key assumption in the editorial is that the carpool lanes were underutilized. If the toll lanes haven't pushed more cars into the carpool lanes, then they have failed in the mission that made, or should have made, the proposal palatable even to Nick: by letting the rich pay to drive in the left lane, traffic would speed up in the right lanes.

If that assumption hasn't proven correct, then I think it's fair for us to argue against converting more carpool lanes to toll ones, at least for the time being. Personally, I'd rather see the DOT do a better job filling the toll lanes before I give up on the concept, because the theory behind it is widely accepted.

Carla Hall: I agree with Jon and the initial editorial for all the same reasons—it gives people a way to get somewhere fast(er) in an emergency if they need to get there. Or if you have the money, you can take it every day. And, theoretically, it should lessen the strain on the "free" lanes. If not that many people are using the carpool lane/toll lane, well, it's not working. But the lane was already set aside as a carpool lane. So…it's always going to be off-limits to most people.

Scott Martelle: …It strikes me as philosophically difficult to build a freeway with everyone's tax dollars, then carve out a special lane for those who want to pay a little more. Yes, economists might like it, but how often are they right? ;-

Hall: Well they're not carving out a special lane—they're taking an already special lane (the carpool lane) and allowing people who pay more to use it.  You're right, the entire freeway is built with everyone's tax dollars.  But if the freeway is so crowded that I can't use it—or using it is a miserable experience—but there's one uncrowded lane, the carpool lane, that is under-used, then it seems like allowing some people to use that carpool lane lessens the misery of those of us on the rest of the freeway. And therefore we who didn't pay extra also benefit.

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Klein: That might be true, in theory it would be true, but the question is whether it's worked out that way.

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Kerry raises another good point, though, has it raised enough money to provide more or better public transit? Maybe the benefit to others isn't on the freeway but on the bus. But there's something about the "I can afford to pay $4,000 a year to drive as fast as I want, so you little people have more buses" thing that really bothers me, practical as it might be.

Hall: But they're not using the carpool lane—at least, not at the present time.  So it should sit almost empty until more of us are convinced to carpool?

Klein: I think Scott's saying that if we really can't get people to use the carpool lanes, we should open the lanes to everyone, thus maximizing their use and allowing everyone (theoretically, again) to move a little faster.

Martelle: Yeah, what Karin said. She speaks fluent Orange Countian.

Healey: For the record, I still like congestion pricing. The point isn't to let the rich have a special lane; it's to bring some market forces to the aid of commuters slowed in part by people who don't have to be on the road at peak hours.

I also think this discussion will be moot in five years, when all cars communicate with each other to maintain spacing and speed travel even in congested periods. OK, maybe 10.

Martelle: The next conspiracy theory (you read it here first): The cars tell the transpo authorities how crowded things are, and when you start your car in your driveway, it tells you, "I'm sorry, Dave, but the freeway is congested. You can't leave yet."

Klein: It won't be a stylish nexus; I can't afford a Lexus.

Martelle: Congestion pricing is fine, as long as everyone pays the same to use the same public resource. Otherwise you set the stage for extra pricing/extra access at parks, for example.

Hall: I'm fine with opening up the underutilized carpool lane to everyone. But I can't imagine anyone on the board (besides me) actually typing those words into an editorial.

I think all your arguments about this being a classist road system to have a toll lane overlook the stark reality of how bad freeway traffic is.   I realize you all believe the way to fix that is to carpool, take a bus, and ride a bike to work.  But meanwhile, until some critical mass of people do as you advocate, you have a crowded freeway with an underutilized carpool lane that could be put to good use as a toll road and in the process help everyone on the freeway.

Martelle: I take the freeways once or twice a week from Irvine (including today) and have a pretty firm grasp of how bad freeway traffic is. Today, 405 was jammed at Seal Beach so I took the 605 planning to get downtown via the 5, but there was a huge backup, so continued to the 60 and then headed downtown, which was pretty congested. You do work-arounds, including (with Nick's benevolent view of start times) when you go to work - I left home at 5:40. So I overlook nothing.

But the solution isn't to let those with the fuller pockets buy their way around it.

Hall: Ok, this sounds like that recurring skit on "SNL" that's supposed to be a soap opera—"the Californians"—but every conversation that everyone has is about what freeways they took to get there.

Healey: OK, but here's the thing. If you apply congestion pricing across all the lanes, then you're preventing people from making the choice to pay in time instead of money. Ideally, you have some lanes that aren't tolled at all, along with lanes that are congestion-priced. You'd expect the ones without tolls to be slower than the ones with tolls, especially at peak times. That's how it's designed to work – some folks will go in the toll lanes regardless, some folks will go in the free (that is, pay-with-time) lanes regardless, and some will either avoid the highway regardless in peak times or find another mode of transportation. You'd want to make the toll lanes affordable to anyone for a one-off use during rush hour, but made the cost significant for routine use in peak times.

Again, the point isn't to make life easier for rich people. Face it – life *is* easier for rich people. These are the folks who, push comes to shove, can take a helicopter. The point is to make life better for the population as a whole, which means easing congestion as much as possible and getting cars more efficiently from point A to point B. If it turns out that the most effective way to do that for poor people is to let the rich pay tolls, isn't that better than saying no, everybody needs to keep crawling along?

Martelle:

I haven't read into it as deeply as you probably have, but the places where people extol its successes tend to be places with dense city centers as the focus of the commutes, with core zones subject to the congestion pricing (i.e., traveling around London doesn't kick it in, traveling into the city center does) and that have reliable public transit as an alternative. L.A. is

sui generis

in that relatively few of the people on the freeways on any given commute are heading from suburbs to an urban center. In fact, the proposed 405 toll lane by definition moves the commuters elsewhere. The question isn't whether congestion pricing works everywhere (and I suspect it's limited), but whether it would work here, and I've seen nothing that suggests it can be an effective tool in such a sprawling commuter mess as this.

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