Highway robbery targets the poor

SACRAMENTO • Despite its status as one of the nation's more progressive states, California is speeding backwards by promoting what amounts to a highly regressive tax on motorists. It involves what critics call the Lexus Lanes.

The latest example is along heavily travelled Interstate 680 connecting Sacramento and San Jose, where crews are refashioning what used to be known as high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and making them what are now called express lanes. It is a textbook case of government turning a good thing into an unfair thing.

Across the nation, HOV lanes are designed to encourage carpooling, which reduces congestion and pollution. Generally, vehicles with two or more occupants are entitled to use the faster HOV lanes. Express lanes, however, allow any single-occupant vehicle to use the faster lanes by paying a fee.

In Southern California, a roughly 13km stretch of Highway 91 was converted to the programme last month, creating an express lane covering 34km. The fee for privileged passage in rush hour can be more than US$20 (S$28) each way.

Most regions still allow vehicles with two or more occupants to use the faster lanes free, but on Highway 91, even that deal has changed. Free travel on 91 now requires at least three occupants, not two - except during peak hours eastbound, when no free travel is permitted. It's a complete distortion of the HOV concept.

The shift to fee-based express lanes comes as many municipalities face the fact that despite HOV lanes, single-occupancy travel is increasing steadily. Some 73 per cent of Los Angeles residents are driving to work alone, according to a 2016 report. As traffic jams mount, the Southern California authorities continue to raise fees. This month, the maximum express rate on Interstate 10 was increased to US$1.80 per mile (1.6km), from US$1.70. Motorists who don't pay face a minimum fine of US$238.

Outside Washington, DC, Virginia operates about 64km of high-priced express lanes. A news release says the goal is to "provide faster, more predictable travel options". Never discussed is the inherent unfairness of the programmes.

Like California, Virginia uses so-called dynamic pricing to adjust express-lane tolls, depending on traffic volume. It states that the top rate is "approximately US$1 per mile"; however, rates rise without limit in the case of especially clogged traffic, such as might result from a major accident. Rates during busiest periods have climbed dramatically, sometimes reaching US$30 for a single trip.

How could anyone earning minimum wage possibly afford US$1 or more per mile - above and beyond the costs of owning and operating a car - to get to work speedily?

Yet in the Bay Area around San Francisco, an 885km network of express lanes is planned, with construction continuing through 2035. In central Florida, eight express-lane projects are under way.

Express roads have been around for more than a decade, but the spike in construction is because of aggressive marketing by tech companies that have improved automatic collection systems. These businesses partner with local governments and share in the revenue.

The new technology requires motorists to obtain transponders for their vehicles because all tolls are collected electronically. The devices are free, but the process of obtaining them can be like excessive voter-registration procedures: It can be more difficult to participate if you are on a budget and do not have a credit card.

If fairness, not government greed, were considered, the transponders could easily be used to adjust tolls progressively, based on the value of a car: A Lexus owner would pay more than someone driving a Kia. However, such common sense seems too much for even liberal legislators to consider.

In addition to being unfair, express lanes are being cited as a safety risk. State Senator Frank Artiles, Republican of Miami, introduced legislation to ban the programmes, but his Bill died this month in committee. "It's clear that it's not safe," he told ABC's Miami affiliate, citing highway patrol statistics about an increased number of accidents in the narrow express lanes. He added: "I truly believe that it's only a money-making scheme."

Transportation officials in Los Angeles County recently decided to study whether even more toll increases are needed to relieve the congestion that currently plagues express lanes. But raising tolls on lanes that were previously intended for carpoolers only increases the inequity.

Taxpayer-funded facilities - be they libraries, parks or highways - should not be segregated according to one's ability to pay an additional fee. What's next? A fee for which motorists without a disability can buy their way into prized handicapped-parking spots?

Defenders of express lanes argue that the system actually promotes fairness by making quicker travel available to everyone, not just those willing to carpool.

In fact, express lanes are speeding our journey down the road - already far too well travelled - towards being a nation of haves and haves-less.

NYTIMES

•Peter Funt is a writer and TV host.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2017, with the headline 'Highway robbery targets the poor'. Print Edition | Subscribe