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Toll lanes on the 10 and 110: Wide open spaces or cash grab?

ExpressLanes on the I-10 open on February 23, 2013.
ExpressLanes on the I-10 open on February 23, 2013.
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On February 23rd Metro ExpressLanes opens the HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes on the I-10 freeway. The I-10 will adhere to most of the same confusing rules as the I-110, but will the toll lanes actually relieve congestion or is it just an additional revenue stream for Metro? 

Metro ExpressLanes is a 12-month pilot program and primarily funded with a $210 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The funds have resulted in two ExpressLanes in each direction by converting the HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane and adding a new lane. The condition for the grant is that the HOT lanes must allow for speeds over 45 mph at least 90 percent of the time. The 110 freeway is currently meeting that minimum requirement, according to Metro officials.

However, motorists have criticized that the HOT lanes actually cause more traffic in the general, all-purpose lanes. 

“We’re still in the ramp up period, which is typical for all HOT lanes as people begin to understand how the lanes will work and get their FasTrak transponders,” said Stephanie Wiggins, Metro’s Executive Officer of the Congestion Reduction Initiative. “So during the ramp-up period, the general purpose lanes, or the regular lanes, are more congested than before the lanes were converted, but that’s expected to be a temporary condition.”

While carpoolers with at least three people are always able to use the ExpressLanes for free, two-person carpools will have to pay a toll during peak hours (5 A.M.-9 A.M. and 4 P.M. – 7 P.M.) on the 10 freeway. Solo drivers in the ExpressLanes will be charged between $0.25 to $1.40 per mile, depending on the congestion at that moment. If the ExpressLanes become overcrowded, tolls will increase to alleviate congestion in those lanes.

“The solo driver has the choice when they choose to, depending on the toll amount at a given time, to shift over and get more reliability,” said Wiggins. “They’re paying for reliability and a guaranteed trip.”

If an accident occurs and a solo driver does not get a 45 mph-minimum trip, then their toll charges will be credited back by the next business day.

Organizations like the National Motorists Association believe that HOV and HOT lanes should not exist at all. California Representative Jim Thomas stated, “Our position is basically that all motorists are required to pay the taxes to build a highway system and therefore should be entitled to the full use of it.”

Wiggins emphasized that use of the ExpressLanes is preserved for transit and carpoolers, but for solo drivers, “It’s a choice. As a solo driver, you also have the choice to remain in the general purpose lanes.” 

Beginning on February 23rd, single drivers who use the toll lanes less than four times a month will pay an additional $3 monthly for maintenance and revenue costs, and undoubtedly, this has caused much complaint from motorists who are considered “infrequent users.” Board Director Zev Yaroslavsky has motioned to wave this fee for all Los Angeles County residents because it may negatively generate participants from other counties piggy-backing on Metro’s program to avoid the costs of their local systems. Metro is examining this proposal and will consider in March whether or not to change the fee.

Currently, there are over 87,000 accounts opened, and Metro estimates generating $18-20 million annually from the toll lanes. After $10 million for operations and maintenance, the balance will be reinvested in transportation improvement.

All motorists who choose to use ExpressLanes must open an account and have a transponder because the toll system is entirely automated. To open an account, a $40 pre-paid deposit is required to go towards tolls and obtain a transponder. The fees for the transponder are waived as long as the transponder is returned in working condition when the account is closed.

This pilot program will be under evaluation, and in December, CalTrans and Metro will have to report to the public and state legislature about the performance of the HOT lanes. If ExpressLanes become a permanent fixture in the L.A. freeways, Metro hopes to make more adjustments such as allowing electric vehicles to travel toll-free.

Are you going to use ExpressLanes? Will it alleviate traffic on these freeways or is it just a money grab? Will it cause more congestion in the general lanes?

Stephanie Wiggins, Metro’s Executive Officer of the Congestion Reduction Initiative

Jim Thomas, California Representative of National Motorists Association