Last week my friend and colleague David Hanson of that cross-town paper quoted me saying I was down on the City Council because they weren’t doing anything. Well I did tell him that, but I thought it was a private conversation. Like I don’t already have enough problems running my paddle company! Sheesh.
Well, in no way did I mean to impugn the dedicated and tireless work of our elected officials. It’s the system that’s rigged. When for example four of five council members vote in favor of trial street closures, and I am asked (along with many others) to serve on a committee to bring some recommendations forward over numerous meetings and many months, and then see it die at the altar because of a few vocal opponents, not only do I lose hope, but I’m resentful of the time I wasted.
It seems any determined, organized special interest group that shows up at meetings and writes letters can separate the council from their convictions.
There also seems to be an institutionalized fear of big ideas and the cost of funding them. Instead of embracing progress, we cower behind the age-old villains Coastal Commission, Caltrans, liability, and debt. Maybe we resist change because we are a town of retirees on fixed incomes. But there are ways to fund change without taxing residents, like parking and transit fees, bed and sales taxes, state and federal grants, and even private business partnerships. Debt is how big projects get done, and as a tourist town we have the luxury of taxing our visitors for improvements that will of course benefit them as well.
We also have a pathological dependence on outside consultants, who justify their fees with endless dog and pony shows that drag on through the years with nothing to show. Not a single recommendation by our consultants has been embraced or adopted, despite contracts nearing $1 million. Where are the big ideas to alleviate our number one problem – parking and congestion? The only one I’ve heard came from Sam Goldstein, who was on my radio show last week.
It’s called congestion pricing systems, and the idea is to charge a toll to enter a city center during peak traffic periods. Stockholm, Singapore and London do it. Milan too. I was just there for the first time in a decade, and I didn’t recognize it. I lived there many years ago and frankly loathed the congestion and pollution. But four years ago Milan implemented Area C, which charges motorists $6 if they enter the center city between 7:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. The idea was met with furious resistance, especially merchants, who claimed it would be Dante’s “Inferno.”
Instead, this congestion pricing system transformed the city into a livable, breathable, tranquil town. I didn’t see a single traffic jam. Along with a vigorous car share program, cars have been reduced by 40%, and everyone is happy and literally breathing easier, including merchants, who have seen a spike in their business.
Imagine a Laguna where we take control of our streets, and place meters at ACT V, Aliso Beach, and either El Morro or Boat Canyon – along with adjacent multi-story garages with free parking and shuttles into town. That solves any problems with Coastal Commission’s free beach access mandate. Those who don’t want to park and ride pay a $6 toll for the privilege. Or a $6 toll if they are driving through to bypass the 405 and 73. Residents don’t pay. If we want to reduce the amount of traffic in our town, this is actually the only proven way to do it.
How would we afford those parking garages and shuttle services? Let’s look at the math. Between 35-70,000 cars travel through Laguna daily. Let’s say 45,000 is the average daily number. Let’s keep it simple and say one third are residents, one third are coming to work or play, and one third are driving right through. Two thirds are eligible to pay the toll, or 30,000. If that number alone is reduced by 40% (like Milan), then there are 12,00 less cars on our roads, while the remaining 18,000 pay the toll. That’s $108,000 per day, $40 million a year, plus a huge reduction in traffic and parking woes. Bam!
That would more than cover the cost of transit, maintenance, liability issues, and the garages. Then imagine what else we could with that money to transform that terrorizing stretch of Coast Highway between downtown and Diamond Street that makes us one of the most dangerous pedestrian cities in California. We could slow cars down with single lanes in each direction, create a center turn and express lane for transit, a dedicated bike lane, eliminate curbs and add parklets and planters to make it the coolest stretch of Coast Highway on the coast, and an extension of our downtown village. The increased foot traffic for merchants would be unbelievable.
It takes big stones to make these things happen, but towns are doing it whose traffic has grown larger than their infrastructure. Because not only are progress and preservation not mutually exclusive, they are truly co-dependent.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8pm on KX93.5, and can be reached at [email protected].