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EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE / ON WHEELS

Ending gridlock

There are ways to build a mass transit system that works in L.A. The hard part is finding the funding.

January 05, 2008

Next week, politicians, engineers, labor leaders, environmentalists and assorted wonks will gather to try to solve one of L.A.'s knottiest policy problems: how to build a decent public transit system in a city where the need is almost overwhelming and the funding entirely inadequate. Appropriately enough for an initiative that may require divine intervention to succeed, it will be held in meeting rooms at downtown's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

The goal of Thursday's conference, which is expected to feature such luminaries as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce President David Fleming and California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, is to develop political consensus that might later result in legislation or ballot measures. A wide range of strategies is on the agenda, involving ways to wrest more transit money from the state and ways to assess Angelenos to fund their own system.

Two things are clear about the list of proposals under consideration: There are very good ideas out there, so no one should think that a top-notch transit system in L.A. -- including a subway to the sea -- is a hopeless quest. And any initiative that involves the state government, at least in the short-term, is probably dead on arrival.

California is facing a $14.5-billion shortfall this year; proposals to put tighter controls on state gas-tax money to assure it's spent on transportation rather than being diverted to other purposes seem quaint when our schools are staring at a $1.4-billion budget cut and 30,000 prison inmates may have to be released early. Planners on Thursday are also expected to discuss a possible state constitutional amendment that would allow voter approval of taxes dedicated to transportation by a 55% vote, rather than the current two-thirds majority. Important as transportation is, it's questionable whether it deserves special tax privileges not given to other state priorities, such as education. It's also certain that rural voters, who don't give two figs for big-city public transit, will reject any attempt to send their tax dollars to places like L.A. and San Francisco.

It's clear that if Los Angeles wants better public transit, Los Angeles has to pay for it. There is a long list of ways to make that happen, involving varying degrees of pain. They include higher state or county gas taxes, higher county sales or parcel taxes, congestion pricing, toll lanes, tax-increment financing in transit districts, local bonds, higher vehicle registration fees, higher parking fees, surcharges on parking or traffic tickets, and assessments on real estate developers.

When weighing all these options, planners should keep two concepts at the top of their minds. First, the best taxes and fees discourage the kind of behavior that causes the problem policymakers are trying to solve and targets those responsible. Second, they should be progressive, meaning that they should be paid by those best able to afford them. That should rule out regressive instruments like higher sales taxes, which hurt the poor disproportionately and do little to alter transportation habits.

When it comes to traffic, the bad behavior that planners should seek to discourage is solo commuting -- we should look for ways to charge lone drivers a fee. Such assessments are fair because the people causing the problem pay the cost of its solution. They're relatively progressive because those who have jobs to drive to are presumably better able to afford the fee than those who don't, or who can't afford a car. And they're effective because the fee itself discourages solo commuting and thus helps reduce traffic independent of subways or bus lines built with the proceeds. Funding sources that meet these criteria include congestion pricing, toll lanes or roads, and eliminating free parking at businesses countywide.

Another form of bad behavior that should be taxed is driving a low-mileage, high-emissions vehicle. One excellent way of doing this is to impose a special registration fee on gas-guzzlers. Another way of accomplishing the same goal is to raise the gas tax -- a great idea, but one that has little chance of political success as gas prices push toward the $4-a-gallon mark in California.

Solo drivers and SUV owners aren't rotten or irresponsible people; there are hundreds of thousands of them in L.A. County, including most members of The Times' editorial board. But their behavior is causing social harm in the form of traffic and pollution, and it's appropriate for them to bear the cost. And if a better transit system results, they could eventually leave their cars in the garage and stop paying the fee.

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