Los Angeles is in the process of constructing High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes along existing carpool lanes on the 10 and 110 freeways with the assistance of $210 million in federal grant money that became available when New York City's attempt to introduce a Manhattan congestion charge failed. When completed in 2012, these lanes will allow motorists driving alone to pay a toll to access the lanes which are currently restricted to transit and carpoolers. Money generated from the tolls will go towards upkeep of the freeways and improved transit service along the freeway.
Although this project is slated to open next year, it has recently come under attack from both Republican representative Gary Miller, who claims that since taxpayers already have paid to build the freeway they should not have to pay again to drive on it, and Democrat representative Maxine Walters, who claims that since only rich people will be able to afford to drive on it it is unfair to the poor. Both of these arguments are fallacious; in fact, the success of this HOT lane, which, if successful, is likely to be replicated in other American cities, is to a large part dependent on how much political interference is allowed in its operation.
First, Gary Miller's argument is clearly nonsensical. It is akin to arguing that once you buy a car you should never have to pay for an oil change because you already paid for the car, or that once you buy a house you should never have to pay for a plumber or a house painter since you already paid money for the house. The cost of paying for the lanes only paid for the initial construction, it did not pay for maintenance. While theoretically gas taxes should pay for the maintenance, the fact that the federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993, in conjunction with the increased fuel economy of cars, has meant that for the past few years funding from the general budget has had to be redirected to the transportation trust fund to ensure its solvency. Someone has to pay for the upkeep of the roads, and it seems better that the people using the roads should pay rather than the general automobile driver.
Maxine Walter's argument is simply not born out by the facts. Studies like this one have shown that everyone benefits from HOT lanes, not just the wealthy, because their existence offers them a choice to pay extra for a speedier trip when the purpose of the trip is extremely important, like a job interview. I do not usually agree with Robert Poole and the Cato Institute, both of whom are anti-transit, but in this case they make a good point for HOT lanes. In addition, the fact that some of the toll proceeds will go towards the operation of improved bus service along the respective corridors means that low income people who cannot afford cars will still benefit from the lanes. More importantly, the fact that not everyone can benefit equally from something does not mean that we should not do anything at all.
The above two arguments have been repeatedly brought up in regards to HOT lanes and have been able to be overcome. The true obstacle to HOT lane success will be if political interference in operation of the lane means that the tolls can not be optimally set. For example, if the maximum toll, or ceiling, is too low that means people that would be willing to pay more to use the lane will be stuck in traffic; and if the minimum toll, or floor, is set too low not enough vehicles will use the lane which will result in an inefficient volume of traffic. To my knowledge every HOT lane has a toll floor and toll ceiling that vary based on time of the day but true economic efficiency demands no such floor and ceiling. Why should a HOT lane not be free at 3 A.M. or cost $50 to use at 5 P.M.? Let us allow the consumers to decide how much their commute time is worth to them and not politicians.