Curbing our need for oil

I propose an urban congestion tax of at least $1.50 a gallon for all major metropolitan areas. This would make gas more expensive and thus compel more people to seek alternative ways of getting around.

It would also raise much-needed revenue for public transportation. Most proceeds from the congestion tax would be applied to local transit projects, such as L.A.'s long-long-awaited Subway to the Sea.

Because any such tax would be regressive in nature, hitting lower-income people disproportionately harder, a portion of the revenue should be applied to providing tax credits to people who fall below a certain income threshold -- say, $50,000 a year.

Lower speed limits: Fifty-five saves fuel and lives. It was true then and it's true now. Don't like it? Tough.

Oil subsidies: Nobody knows exactly how much the oil industry receives in government-funded tax breaks and other handouts. Greenpeace estimates the total at $15 billion to $35 billion a year. Whatever the amount, the companies don't need it.

Last year, Exxon Mobil pocketed $40.6 billion in profit, the most by any company ever. Put another way, the oil giant earned nearly $1,300 every second throughout 2007.

For its part, No. 2 Chevron's profit last year hit $18.7 billion. Factor in results from Shell and ConocoPhillips, and the industry's four leading players collectively took in more than $100 billion.

Yes, yes, the industry will complain that oil is harder and more expensive to find nowadays, and that's true. And it will point to its relatively modest profit margin of about 7.6% of revenue, although that's a red herring; the real number is the oil industry's very impressive 27% return on equity, a more reliable measure of a capital-intensive company's performance.

Bottom line: They can afford an end to government gimmes. And isn't that better than a windfall-profit tax?

Telecommuting: To get people off the roads in L.A. and elsewhere and thus ease the pain of runaway gas prices, businesses should be given tax breaks for encouraging and enabling employees to work from home.

In L.A. specifically, tax breaks also should be offered to businesses that create branch offices closer to workers' homes, thus easing commutes and gas costs.

A downtown company (like, for instance, this newspaper) doesn't need everyone under one roof. People who live on the Westside should work, at least part of the time, out of a Westside office. People in the Valley should work out of the Valley. People in Orange County . . . you get the idea.

The technology's already in place. It's crazy not to use it.

Public transportation: L.A. is choking to death in cars and our political leaders seem incapable of doing anything about it. The city's limited metro system is slow and inconvenient, and the best we're otherwise offered are half-baked ideas like making Pico and Olympic boulevards one-way thoroughfares.

How's this: Close Olympic to all traffic weekdays from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The road would be exclusively dedicated during these hours to express, rapid and local bus lines.

If a Subway to the Sea can't get built, we can at least have a Busway to the Beach.

Windfall-profit tax: What the hell, why not? A measly 1% levy would have produced an extra $1 billion last year for public transportation and research into alternative fuel sources. The oil majors can just figure out a way to scrape by on $99 billion in annual profit.

Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.





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