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EDITORIAL FOR WHOM THE LANE TOLLS HOV LANE CONVERSION PLAN IS A TAXPAYER RIP-OFF.

PROVING that "bipartisan" is not always synonymous with "common sense," the Bush administration, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are lining up behind a plan that would make Angelenos pay for the same roads twice.

That's right: Even though your tax dollars paid to build the Southland's freeways, our leaders in Washington, Sacramento and City Hall think you should pay for the privilege of using them.

Last week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters joined Schwarzenegger and Villaraigosa in backing plans to convert some 85 miles of the HOV lanes from the I-10, the Foothill and the Harbor freeways into toll lanes. Drivers would pay a premium -- perhaps as much as $10 each way at peak times -- to drive in these first-class lanes, whizzing past the poor schlubs stuck in coach.

In theory, the plan would move traffic more quickly, at least for those who can afford to spend as much as an extra $100 a week on their commute. That's because the toll lane would guarantee faster speeds by bumping less affluent drivers into the remaining lanes.

In other words, faster commutes for the rich, more congestion for the rest of us.

State and local leaders like this idea because it comes with cash -- a $213.6million federal grant that would include funds for Park and Ride lots and 60 new buses. But as much as California and L.A. could use the money, this is a case in which the benefit isn't worth the cost.

In the short term, converting the lanes and erecting tollbooths would wreak havoc on traffic. And in the long term, tollbooths would create bottlenecks in places where congestion is already bad enough.

It need not be like this. In other parts of California, such as Orange County and San Diego, toll lanes have helped to relieve traffic congestion, and they could in L.A., too.

But there's a key difference between toll roads that work and the impractical ones now being proposed.

Typically, toll lanes are new roads. They provide additional traffic capacity to an existing freeway or route, and are paid for by the very people who most benefit by using them. For that matter, even those who don't use them also benefit, because traffic on the old freeway lanes is reduced when wealthier motorists switch over to the toll road.

But the toll roads being pushed by the Bush, Schwarzenegger and Villaraigosa administrations are exactly the opposite. They amount to double taxation by charging taxpayers a second time to use taxpayer-built freeways, while neither expanding capacity nor reducing congestion for the vast majority of motorists.

And while it's true that some of California's HOV lanes -- including the ones targeted for conversion -- are underutilized, there are better ways to put them to more efficient use than to start socking commuters with tolls.

For one, the state could eliminate these lanes' HOV status, and make them open to all.

Or, it could create a different sort of "toll" for solo motorists who are willing to pay extra to drive in the HOV lane. These drivers could purchase a special sticker, like the one hybrid drivers can put on their cars, that lets them drive in car-pool lanes.

Both those solutions would get more cars in the car-pool lanes -- and out of the general traffic flow -- without imposing a cost on anyone, save for a voluntary one paid by the top beneficiaries. And neither would create the logistical nightmare that comes with building and maintaining tollbooths.

Of course, these plans wouldn't generate a lucrative stream of government revenues the way tolls would. That's probably why they're not under consideration.

Charging taxpayers twice for the same benefit is an easy way to ramp up government's cash intake. But it's also a rip-off, and one that does very little to cure L.A.'s profound traffic problems.
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 7, 2008
Words:644
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