Gridlock Government

Debra J. Saunders

10/25/2011 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
What is the purpose of high-occupancy vehicle lanes? Is it to make people who aren't in car pool lanes feel resentful? Or, as University of California, Berkeley civil and environmental engineering professor Michael Cassidy believes, is the goal to reduce the number of people-hours traveled? Cassidy believes HOV lanes work but used to work better.

Cassidy and doctoral student Kitae Jang conducted a study of Bay Area freeway traffic before and after July 1, when the Legislature let lapse a 2005 program that allotted yellow stickers granting access to HOV lanes for low or solo occupancy to 85,000 hybrid vehicles. The researchers found that everybody loses. "Drivers of low-emission vehicles are worse off, (and) drivers in the regular lanes are worse off," Cassidy said in a statement.

But though transportation solons had predicted that removing hybrids' privilege would speed up car pool lanes, the opposite occurred: "Drivers in the car pool lanes are worse off." When regular traffic backs up, drivers in car pool lanes slow down, too.

Cassidy thinks that the best way to ease the commute would be to "put the 85,000 (hybrids) back, and then some." (This is probably a good place for me to mention that I drive a hybrid.) The "then some" could come by adding more hybrids or by allowing solo drivers to pay to travel in high-occupancy toll corridors.

Spokesman Randy Rentschler noted that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission prefers HOT lanes, as they are "more democratic" and "open to everybody, not a class of vehicles." Reason Foundation's Robert Poole also supports HOT lanes.

But Rentschler admits that the creation of more HOT lanes isn't likely to happen for years.

So bring back the hybrids.

Granted, this is one study. In a statement, the California Department of Transportation said that it "would need to analyze traffic for an extended period to verify that hybrid vehicles no longer being in the car pool lane (is) causing increased congestion."

Problem: The Legislature acted too soon. As California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton argued in the spring, Sacramento at least should have kept the yellow sticker program until 2012, when a federal program for new green cars begins.

California Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young explained that lawmakers added hybrids to the car pool lane to promote a new technology that is "now mainstream, so we are moving into the next generation of advanced technology vehicles." But the new green cars have waiting lists and higher price tags. It will take a long time to put 85,000 on the road.

Unfortunately, some public officials don't see it as their jobs to ease the commute and the cost for the working stiff who pays taxes and tolls -- even if gridlocked cars create more pollution than moving cars. It's their job to change your behavior.

Or spend your money trying and failing to change your behavior. "They've been not very successful in terms of the original purpose in stimulating car pools," Poole observed. According to federal statistics, ride sharing in the Bay Area has decreased from 16 percent in 1980 to 11 percent in 2010. Even with added HOV lanes, the raw number of carpoolers is down by 35,000.

As for Burton, the former state Senate president pro tem, he doesn't expect Sacramento to rectify its mistake. He already has scraped the yellow HOV sticker off his Prius.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com. To find out more about Debra J. Saunders and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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