Tue, May

The MTA Has Declared Us a Class-Based Society … Let's Do Them One Better


GELFAND’S WORLD-You may have heard it on the news the other day. The MTA has decided to make the toll lanes on the 110 into a permanent money making machine. They even voted to bring back monthly fees for the transponders. We're officially a divided society now, one in which the rich get to rocket past the peasants on our freeways, since a ten dollar bill is of little consequence to them. To others, that ten dollar bill is a lot, which is why they avoid the Lexus Lanes and thereby leave them open for the use of the upper crust. 

I would like to offer my own proposal for evening the score a bit. It's technically easy, and it would provide for a bit more equity in this very inequitable road system of ours. We could even apply it to parking tickets or moving violations if we wanted. 

In fact, it's just about exactly the same system we already use on a statewide basis for licensing our cars. The license fee is proportional to the value of the car. The least valuable automobile licenses for a little over $80 a year. Most of that $80 is baseline fees, with only a little coming from what is called the Vehicle License Fee, or VLF. You can look it up on the DMV's own website.  Right now, the law sets the VLF at 0.65% of the value of the car. That's about one dollar for every hundred and fifty your car is worth, give or take a couple of two dollar bills. 

If you just bought your car for $27,000 before tax and license, then the VLF is about $175. For somebody with a $200,000 Italian sports car, the VLF is more like $1300. 

So here is my proposal. Program the value of the Vehicle License Fee into each car's transponder. Then have the system charge accordingly. We can still have congestion pricing, which is the buzz word for charging more when traffic is heavier. But for each car going up the 110, the incremental Fastrak charge is multiplied by the amount that the car is worth according to its VLF. 

So for somebody like me driving an old beater, maybe the charge is a buck, but for that new Lamborghini, maybe it's $80. If traffic gets busier and my charge goes up to a dollar fifty, that Lambo gets charged $120. 

The beauty is that we've added back progressive taxation to a system that has become about as regressive as it's possible to be. Justice is served. 

Not only that, but people like me, watching the high priced models zoom past, will no longer feel angry and resentful. I will tell myself that for $80, that Lambo owner is making a significant contribution to our city, and is even lowering my road taxes a bit. Thousands of such cars paying their fair share (always a nice cliche for us liberals to trot out), and we have some real income accumulating for the city. 

There is a serious side to this argument that goes to the direction our society has been taking. The idea of congestion pricing is very much a politically conservative concept. If I recall correctly, Los Angeles fell into the Fastrak trap during the George W. Bush administration, when this thing was all the rage. The city accepted a pile of money -- around two hundred million dollars approximately -- and the price to us was that we had to play the congestion pricing game. 

Congestion pricing. What is it, actually? Broadly speaking, it's a system in which the masters of the roads look down on us from their cameras, and if traffic builds up enough, and there is increased demand for those toll lanes, then they jack the prices up accordingly. That accomplishes two things. 

First, it keeps the toll lanes from themselves becoming congested. The rest of us sit sweating in bumper to bumper, but the toll lanes are open and moving. To the conservative mind, that's a beautiful thing -- there will always be some price that you can pay to have an open lane in front of you. 

To borrow an old line from conservative author George Gilder, it's one dollar, one vote. This is a reasonable way to run a supermarket or a Friday morning craft faire, the kind of thing Gilder was writing about. It's not an equitable way to allocate lane occupancy on a publicly owned resource. 

The second thing that the system does is collect money. And we can agree with conservatives on one point here: Once the city fathers start taking that money, they can't find a way to give it up. 

So the city of Los Angeles and the other voting members of the MTA board took the federal dollars, found that they could rent out a lot of transponders, and now find that they can collect dollars from lots of cars that used to drive those freeways for free. 

Well, it actually wasn't for free, because we have gas taxes and vehicle licensing fees, but you know what I mean. It was called a freeway, and that actually meant something. The city now has a system that rewards itself for having lousy traffic. The more congested the freeway, the more they can charge. You might look up the term perverse incentive. 

The history of public input in this whole mess is instructive. The fact that the harbor area and regions going north hate the whole thing was simply ignored. The fact that the neighborhood councils passed resolutions protesting the Fastrak system was ignored. The fact that residents went to the public hearings and protested went ignored. 

But this week, there was something that was not ignored. The fact that the Fastrak system would have to give up more than twenty million dollars a year if it lost those tolls, that part did not go ignored. Indeed, the MTA people talked about what an overwhelming success the whole thing is. They seem to base their analysis on how many transponders they have installed. I don't think we are going to hear a lot of congratulatory talk about average speeds on the other, non-Fastrak lanes. 

Maybe we should call them the Slotrak lanes. As far as the MTA is concerned, congestion on the Slotrak side is not an issue. Maybe someday all that congestion will become an excuse to make the whole freeway a toll way, much as they do in eastern cities. 

So here's where I stand on the issue. First of all, the automobile and the freeway system are long since obsolete, especially here in Los Angeles. We're badly in need of a new idea. Luckily for you, there is one, called PRT, which I plan to discuss in an upcoming column. In the meanwhile, if I'm going to have to sit in traffic while the Lexi and Bentleys and Lambo's go by, let's at least get some socially beneficial results by making the tolls progressive, and base that progressivity on car valuation. 

We could do it even more effectively by basing the tolls on federal tax returns, and it would probably be just as easy, but I suspect that this would be politically untenable. 

One last thought. We spent quite a few words talking about parking meters and parking ticket fines the other day. I did get quite a bit of feedback about how corrupt the appeals system is, including some from a relative whose story matched mine just about detail for detail. But that column didn't do much with the inherent inequity of giving an unemployed, struggling person the same outrageously priced ticket as the Bentley owner. Since the parking enforcement people have an automated system including those little computerized ticket writing machines, how about having the device run the plates and adjust the fine proportionally. 

None of these ideas are all that radical or even all that new. There are some European countries that base traffic fines on the ability to pay. The record appears to be the driver of a red Ferrari who was fined the equivalent of $290,000 by a Swiss court. Now that's progressive pricing.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]






Vol 12 Issue 35

Pub: Apr 29, 2014




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