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Everyone paid for this state’s freeways via the gasoline tax, highest in the lower 48 states. Stock photo
California FocusOpinion

Elias: More bait-and-switch on freeway toll lanes

Traffic rules and traffic jams act as one of the few true equalizers in American life.

The rules cover everyone equally, drivers of 1993 Honda Civics facing the same speed limits, red lights and delays as people driving the newest Cadillacs and Lamborghinis.

But the movement to make things unequal on California’s urban highways, to favor the rich over the poor, grows steadily, always pushed by the well-meaning denizens of university planning departments.

The toll lanes and toll roads these folks consistently favor and drill into the students who will eventually become city, county and state traffic planners, have yet to eliminate a single traffic jam.

They also are one of the great governmental bait-and-switches of all time.

Everyone paid for this state’s freeways via the gasoline tax, highest in the lower 48 states. Everyone expected to enjoy equal access to their land and lanes.

But toll lanes common on freeways in the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California and soon, if planners have their way, in places like Fresno and San Diego, plainly favor the rich.

Tolls are often charged by the mile, with people paying to enjoy the same privileges when alone in their vehicles that are usually provided by carpool lanes.

Only a few of those were added to the original freeways — and not merely appropriated from existing lanes — because of public protests over the bait-and-switch.

Tolls are higher in peak hours when people have the most need to drive. Who hasn’t endured traffic jams while watching the privileged whiz by in converted toll lanes that once were available to all?

It’s yet another failed tactic pushed by utopian planners. Remember, these are the same folks who claimed slowdowns and stoppages would be mitigated by metering freeway on-ramps so that only one car at a time can enter traffic lanes.

Anyone who has driven the I-405 freeway in Los Angeles or the I-80 near the eastern approaches to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge knows that does not ease traffic loads.

But failure and unfairness do not stop the university departments that create traffic policy.

A new study from UCLA’s influential transportation institute once again claims that “congestion pricing” — charging more to use freeways at peak hours — is “the gold standard policy for managing traffic.”

This time, though, the traffic “experts” concede their favored practice is unfair on its face, excluding those who can’t afford high tolls from the fast lanes, and consigning them to traffic jams on freeways like I-880 and I-110, to name just two.

Their new report suggests 13% of households in the state’s six largest urban areas might be “unduly burdened” by the combination of their driving needs, high tolls and low incomes.

So the planners suggest subsidizing drivers with household incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level ($55,000 or less for a family of four). Real life in this era suggests far more than 13% of Californians fall into that category.

But how to tell which drivers are in what category? Their auto registrations don’t provide this information, with many rich folks preferring to hang on to older cars they like rather than buying new ones.

So the planners suggest matching car registrations with welfare records, thus violating the privacy of many. Plus, giving those who match up in this way cash does not guarantee it will be spent on toll lanes.

In fact, odds are it will be spent on other things, defeating the purpose of trying to make toll lanes fair.

There’s the rub. Toll lanes imposed on existing roadways are inherently unfair, and no amount of subsidies for the poor will change that.

Most of those lanes have essentially been stolen from drivers who were guaranteed the ability to use them in exchange for paying gas taxes.

But fairness has never been the goal of all this. Rather, the aim is to install ideas that look fine in theory, but don’t do much in practice.

The ultimate answer probably lies not in any tinkering, but in making rapid transit live up to its name, while also making it safe and convenient and clean enough to pull drivers out of their cars in large numbers.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].