Diamond lanes, it might be said, are forever.
This week, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have opened up lanes of two Southern California freeways now restricted to buses and multi-passenger and low-emission vehicles to general use in non-commute periods.
“I continue to believe,” Brown said, “that carpool lanes are especially important in Los Angeles County to reduce pollution and maximize the use of freeways.”
It was not the first time Brown had vetoed such a bill. It also wasn’t the first time he had jousted with the touchy issue of making certain freeway lanes the exclusive provinces of favored vehicles.
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In 1976, scarcely a year into his first governorship, Brown found himself in the eye of a political typhoon when the state Department of Transportation suddenly restricted some lanes of Los Angeles’ heavily traveled Interstate 10 to multi-passenger vehicles.
It touched off an immense traffic jam and an explosion of anger among solo commuters and local politicians.
Initially, in an interview with yours truly, Brown defended diamond lanes as “an experiment to see whether you can move people from one place to another with reduced consumption of resources.”
“The world’s resources are limited,” he continued.
“There is a second law of thermodynamics that cannot be repealed. Energy growth cannot be at the same rapid rate as it has been in the past. Resources are being depleted. The air and the water are finite and unless we can learn to live within the limits then we’re in for severe social and biological conflict and deterioration.”
That’s quite similar to what Brown has been proselytizing recently vis-à-vis carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, so one might say he’s been consistent in advocating strategies to reduce automotive travel and pollution.
However, what happened later in the Interstate 10 blowup also shows the flip side of Brown’s political gestalt. The philosopher prince often abandons self-proclaimed principle when it clashes with practical politics.
When a federal judge ruled later in 1976 that I-10 diamond lanes were procedurally deficient, Brown meekly surrendered. And by the end of the year, he was shunning ownership of diamond lanes, saying, “That was not my policy. That was an experiment set forth by (predecessor Ronald) Reagan. That was Reagan’s policy.”
It was not the last time Brown flip-flopped on a major issue. Two years later, most famously, he converted overnight from a pre-election critic of Proposition 13, the iconic property tax limit, to a self-proclaimed “born-again tax cutter.”
The tendency showed itself repeatedly thereafter and is still evident four decades later, such as in proclaiming “subsidiarity” as a principle to empower local school officials, then setting it aside under pressure from unions to impose limits on local school reserves.
Or as he has put it with characteristic erudition, channeling Ralph Waldo Emerson, “for those small minds that slavishly adhere to foolish consistency, their irrelevance is their best reward.”