Stephanie Wiggins' Battle To Tackle L.A. Traffic
Stephanie Wiggins is working to make every Los Angeles driver's commute easier.
It's a major undertaking in a city known for having some of the worst - if not the worst - traffic in the country. So how is she doing it? Wiggins, the head of the Metro ExpressLanes program, is currently overseeing a project designed to change the traffic flow and driving mentality in L.A. forever.
The project is something close Wiggins, who is no stranger to the nightmare L.A. area traffic can be. For nine months, before finally moving to Pasadena, she commuted from Rancho Cucamonga to LA on the I-10.
She sometimes used the rail system, but that didn’t always reach locations she had to get to for local community meetings. So she drove about 1.5 hours in each direction, every day, until one Friday morning when it took her more than two hours.
“After that, moving to Old Town Pasadena was the easiest decision to make,” Wiggins said. “From then on, it only took me 25 minutes to get to work. It was lovely. Oh my gosh, it was lovely. I felt like I got part of my life back.”
Since 2009, Wiggins has been working on the $210 million, federally funded project that will convert carpool lanes on the I-10 and I-110 into toll lanes. The project is expected to reduce travel time by five to ten percent, depending on traffic levels.
One issue consistently raised in community meetings is equity, which Wiggins has eased through authorizing a study on how the program would affect low-income commuters. The study, peer reviewed by academics from USC, UCLA and the Environmental Defense Fund, found that the project had a “very balanced approach” in addressing equity. The study highlighted the $25 toll credit that would be given to qualifying low-income commuters to ensure no barriers to access the program.
Once the lanes open, those who want to use it will need to purchase a transponder for indicating whether they are driving solo, carpool with two or more people or carpool with three or more people. Carpool drivers use the lanes for free, while solo drivers will pay between 25 cents and $1.40 a mile depending on traffic flow. If the speed of traffic is higher than 45 miles per hour, the toll lanes will shut down and be open as regular carpool lanes.
In terms of construction work, the I-110 is being widened to create more general use lanes. On the I-10, the number of normal lanes is staying the same, but the carpool lane and left shoulder are being restriped to become two ExpressLanes. The I-110 lanes are scheduled to open late this year and the I-10 lanes are expected to open in early 2013.
L.A. has long had the reputation of having horrible traffic, so why are just the the 10 and 110 freeways getting the toll lanes? The most recent annual Texas Transportation Institute report found that seven of the ten most congested corridors in the nation are in the region. In first place for delay per mile was a mere three-mile stretch of the Harbor Freeway I-110 going northbound. The heavily used 13 to 15-mile corridors of the I-10 freeway ranked in the top seven, according to the report.
Wiggins manages a team of at least 40 consultants, contractors and other staff members to ensure the project runs smoothly and most importantly, on schedule. She typically goes to Metro Headquarters to discuss marketing strategies, attend budget meetings, coordinate with transit operations and act as a liaison between Metro and its federal partners.
The rest of her time, Wiggins is in Metro’s field office located in Boyle Heights to address challenges with contractors and customer concerns. For example, she is responsible for coordinating with third parties to develop customer-oriented business rules. In fact, her work largely deals with ensuring the public understands what Metro is doing with the project.
Bronwen Trice, senior community relations manager, said in between organizing over 300 public meetings for community input, Wiggins won a time extension from the federal government to make changes recommended by the public, such as ensuring faster access to LAX from the I-110 to the I-105.
“Stephanie listens and actually implements things the public has recommended to improve the project,” said Bronwen Trice, senior community relations manager.
And when it comes to things she can’t change, Wiggins knows how to use comedic relief.
At a Koreatown Neighborhood Council meeting at Young Oak Kim Academy on Feb. 13, a councilmember asked if the switch button on the transponder could be removed—the button protrudes in an unaesthetic way.
“I know! Sorry, I didn’t read the Steve Jobs biography before we designed it,” Wiggins said to the councilmember.
Transportation may be a complex and controversial subject when things like funding and environmental concerns arise, but Wiggins’ approach as project manager is to be efficient while innovative.
“We know transportation affects our everyday life, and what was exciting and interesting to me was trying something new to expand the choices among L.A County residents to improve the quality of life,” she said.
The 42-year-old has worked in the transportation sector for over 17 years and lived in California for most of her life---she calls herself an Air Force brat because her father was in the military and gave her an international upbringing. Although she’s settled in Pasadena now, she travels to other areas of the country to share lessons learned from other major cities that already have toll lanes like Seattle, Miami, Atlanta and San Diego.
Wiggins, who takes the Gold Line to work when she doesn’t have community meetings in the evening, said even after the lanes are open, her work would be far from being done.
“Our main focus once ExpressLanes go live is to make sure the public understands how they’re working. This means the first four to eight weeks after the lanes open are very critical,” Wiggins said. She responds to emails about the project throughout the day until about 10 p.m.
“When these High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes have been deployed in other parts of the country, there is always a period for the public to really adjust to the system. It also gives us an opportunity to make any minor enhancements or changes that need to be made in terms of how the HOT lanes are working.”
Rick Jager, media relations manager said, “Let’s face it. We’ve outgrown our freeway system here. We have to learn how to better manage the infrastructure that we have, because we cannot afford to build any more freeways.”
“We’re trying to encourage people to select their mode of transit in the morning. It’s really about changing commuter behavior here in Los Angeles, to get them to think before they leave the house in terms of what mode of transit they’re going to take and hopefully a lot of them will be converted to public transit, vanpool or carpool.”
Wiggins said the worst-case scenario is that the new lanes do not actually relieve traffic.
“This is an attempt to improve the quality of your commute. And so as a pilot program, there is that possibility it won’t work. What would happen then is based upon feedback from the public and the board, the recommendation would be to not continue the program.”
But that possibility seems unlikely. A January report from the General Accountability Office found that existing ExpressLanes were favorable in terms of actually reducing travel time. However, Metro is required to collect data and report to the federal government a year before and after the lanes are open, with evidence that traffic is actually being reduced. Among ten different standards the project must meet, the speed of traffic must be at least 45 miles per hour for it to be considered successful by federal standards.
Although toll lanes have long existed in northern California and all over the country, this will be the first time in history drivers in LA will have the option of paying to cut travel time.
Toll prices will reach a maximum of almost $20 on I-10 and $15 on I-110. According to Metro, the average projected toll for ExpressLanes during peak periods will be $4 for the I-110 and $6 for the I-10. Meanwhile, carpool and vanpool drivers can use the toll lanes for free. They also get waived off the $3 monthly charge for using a transponder and receive monthly gift card incentives. Net toll revenues will be reinvested in transit and carpool lane improvements.
For greater efficiency, there will be no tollbooths, meaning toll lane users will need to get a FasTrak transponder, which they can use to indicate whether they are driving solo, two-person carpool or three-person carpool by moving a slider on the device.
Along with reducing travel time, another goal of the project was to increase public transportation options. A portion of the federal grant is going to purchasing 59 alternative fuel buses to extend the Silver Line. In order to reduce traffic while still promoting transit, Metro decided its minimum peak tolls would be no less than 150 percent of transit fare. The Express bus fare is currently $2.45.
“This will be a tremendous one year demonstration for LA,” Jager said, “to see along these two heavily traveled corridors, whether or not people will embrace it, will accept it, will be willing to pay a toll if they drive solo, or take advantage of the options in public transit.”
Wiggins said she definitely remembers the five years she lived in Japan as a child and its impact on her views on transportation and work in general.
“My life in the military has prepared me to take into consideration an input from various cultures and researching to find the best interests for people,” Wiggins said. “Traffic is so severe here, and I think there are no limitations to the solutions. We should not be satisfied with the status quo.”
A look into Stephanie Wiggins' various work locations and the ExpressLanes project in progress.