For the most part, the contract between citizens and the government is a simple, straightforward one: Citizens pay taxes, and in return, the government provides services. In most cases, those services are available to all citizens regardless of how little they pay in taxes. Whether you're a billionaire or a burger flipper, you generally get the same police response when you dial 911 and the same right to cavort in municipal parks or drive on the freeways.
Of course, that's not always how it works. Some government services are more readily available to people with money because the government has imposed a fee on them. If you want to use a state park, for instance, you may have to pay an admission fee that helps cover the cost of the park and its upkeep. If you want to park on Wilshire Boulevard in the middle of the day, you'll probably have to put money into a parking meter. Even in those cases, though, government often charges a flat fee, usually an affordable one, and all citizens who pay it get the same service.
In Los Angeles today, there's a plan to create an unusual new user fee that is stirring up concern. Under a demonstration project, solo drivers on two of the region's most congested freeways — the 110 south of downtown and the 10 east of downtown — would for the first time be allowed to pay to drive in the carpool lanes. To participate, they would have to enroll in the program and be given an electronic "transponder" that attaches to windshields and dashboards. The transponder would be read by overhead sensors and the motorist would be billed automatically.
The cost to the driver would vary depending on the volume of traffic, but the county's Metropolitan Transportation Authority estimates that, for $6, a solo driver could go nine miles on the 10 Freeway; in other words, it would cost several thousand dollars a year to commute to work both ways in the carpool lane every weekday at rush hour.
Opponents of the plan see something fundamentally undemocratic and inequitable about such "congestion pricing." Freeways are a public benefit, traditionally available to all. Yet now, critics say, the roads would be operated under a two-tier system that would allow those with money to speed to their destinations while poor people would watch unhappily from the traffic-jammed sidelines. What's next? Wealthy people paying for faster ambulance service or buying their way out of jury duty? Both Rep. Gary G. Miller (R-Diamond Bar) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) have said they will try to block the demonstration project even though it is in the late planning stages. Waters says it sets up "a traffic system of haves and have-nots."
We're not entirely comfortable with the idea of the government providing first-class service for well-heeled citizens either. But in this case the experiment is worth trying. For one thing, government badly needs the revenue. More than that, though, the new system would not only speed up commutes for the people paying to get into the carpool lanes but would ease traffic for those remaining in the other lanes as well (because the tollpayers wouldn't be there). In fact, the only people who would be negatively affected would be the actual carpoolers, who would now find more cars in their lane.
Another argument for the new system is that even though paying for a full year in the lane would be pricey, paying for one day would be relatively cheap. So if anybody — rich or poor — needs to get to the airport quickly or to a job interview on time, they'd have the option of spending a few bucks to do so (if they have a transponder). That's to everybody's advantage.
What's more, the money from the fees must be spent, by law, on transit or carpool improvements in the same corridor where the funds were generated. That's how a user fee should work. And those improvements will benefit not only the people driving in the fast lanes, but those in the other lanes as well.
It's just an experiment; if it doesn't work, it's not irreversible. But given the severity of L.A.'s traffic problem, it's worth a try.