06/08/2012 12:00 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

From Green to Greedy

Lexus Lanes are coming to L.A.! The 1 percent will be getting their own 'free'way when Caltrans starts its one-year trial of converting some former carpool lanes on heavily trafficked highways such as the 110 to toll lanes in fall 2012. The opportunity to "buy into" a high occupancy toll lane (HOT) may seem appealing to those with disposable income and full wallets, but for those commuters who are already priced out of expensive "in-town" real estate, and must commute -- sometimes for hours -- from affordable communities in the suburbs or exurbs, the cost of entering these toll lanes during rush hour could exceed an hour or two of wages each day. Add those dollars to the high price of gas, and our least affluent drivers will be steaming in heavy traffic watching luxury cars whizzing by at taxpayers' expense.

Yes, "the 99%" will be contributing to the luxury lanes -- that they can't all afford to use! The U.S. Department of Transportation in April, 2008 agreed to provide over $200 million dollars to L.A. Partner Agencies such as Caltrans to build these "HOT" lanes "to reduce congestion." Our tax dollars, which contribute to Federal and Partner Agency funding, will be subsidizing Maybachs and Maseratis, and Audis and Hummers and Escalades.

Of course, HOT lane supporters will argue that "the 99 percent" can opt to carpool and get free access to the HOT lanes. But carpools already get access to the HOV lanes that are being replaced. Those who aren't carpooling yet, aren't likely to start when the HOT lanes arrive -- in fact, with all the new paying customers, the HOT lanes might even become more "congested" than they already are, diluting their value for traffic management. (And carpoolers will attest to how clogged the HOV lanes can get even now when Thursday and Friday families join work commuters.)

But, seeing the date of the Department of Transportation announcement of this initiative (during the Bush administration) makes me wonder about the potential hidden agendas behind this push to convert HOV lanes to HOT lanes. The most obvious is the unwelcome philosophy of "free market"-ization of services and infrastructure, i.e. those who can, pay; and those who can't, sit in traffic. Yes, the solo HOT lane payers will fork over big bucks for transportation -- but, unlike with our federal and state income taxes, these dollar amounts won't be tied to measures of wealth, and could seem piddling for those in the upper classes.

I also can't help but also think about Los Angeles' mourned and beloved Red Cars, the Pacific Electric Railway that, by 1925, was the largest electric railway in the world, taking passengers from Orange County to San Bernardino. By the middle of the twentieth century, L.A. and other cities around the United States were witnessing their light rail networks being replaced by streets and highways crowded with gas-guzzling cars and buses: today, mass transportation has become massed transportation, and we are all indentured to Big Oil.

Except for the new technology on the horizon that can free us from Big Oil's grip. Hybrid, plug-in, and electric cars are now poised to become mainstream vehicles within the next decade. When I first bought a classic Prius in 2001, Prii, and their groundbreaking 50-mpg mileage, were a rarity even in eco-conscious West L.A. Several years later, when California provided an incentive, single-driver HOV access, to Prius purchasers to help offset the extra cost of the hybrid model, Prii bloomed all over the city. Even though regular Prii today are no longer eligible for the solo driving carpool privilege, those HOV years helped convince drivers that a Prius was a very good buy -- and allowed the number of buyers to reach a mass adoption tipping point. Today, Priuses are everywhere, and we all are the better for it--with lower gasoline utilization and cleaner air.

We're now at a similar early stage with the new wave of electric cars. (I still can't forgive GM for killing the EV 1.) There are several such cars available for purchase and use today, including the plug-in Prius and the plug-in GM Volt, as well as the fully electric Nissan Leaf, the Tesla Roadster and its upcoming S and X sedans, the Coda, and the Ford Focus. Plus, Mini and BMW are among the many other companies road-testing electric cars.

California and our current, more progressive federal administration recognize the value of "going electric" to reduce or eliminate gasoline use and auto emissions entirely; the federal government has provided a $7500 tax deduction for eligible cars, and California offers a rebate as well as white or green stickers to allow solo driving in the HOV lanes as incentives for buyers to consider the extra expense of an electric vehicle. For example, sales of the Chevy Volt in California had dropped to 9 percent of total U.S. sales until the green stickers allowing solo Volt drivers' to have carpool privileges were launched in 2012. By March 2012, California Volt sales had climbed to 39 percent!

HOT lanes that do not honor the green and while stickers will remove this effective incentive, at this critical time when new car buyers are exploring the benefits of electric cars; and will set the electric vehicle industry back -- fewer buyers will opt for electric cars and spend the money on gas guzzlers and HOT access tolls instead, benefiting only themselves. Gas-free cars may not see the adoption and sustainability projected and desperately needed within this decade without continued incentives -- including free solo driver HOV and HOT lane use.

Could that be the real hidden agenda?