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Money-Making, Congestion-Reducing Express Lanes Spread On California Freeways

Paresh Dave |
December 18, 2012 | 1:30 a.m. PST

Executive Director

A southbound view of the 110 Freeway near the northern terminus of the Express Lanes. (Paresh Dave/Neon Tommy)
A southbound view of the 110 Freeway near the northern terminus of the Express Lanes. (Paresh Dave/Neon Tommy)
Northbound drivers traveling on the undulating Interstate 110 Freeway through South Central Los Angeles usually hit the brakes as they roll into a basin before downtown. Like race cars awaiting the green flag, the vehicles hum anxiously, some waiting to speed again on the windy stretch of the 110 north of downtown. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a driver alone in the car could pay a $1 toll to travel a three-mile stretch, just south of the L.A. Coliseum, in less than the time it took Flo Rida’s hit “Right Round” to play on the radio. Had the solo driver opted to stick in the congested lanes instead of paying to fast track in lanes long reserved for only carpoolers, he or she would have heard at least another song and a half-dozen ads.

Between July 2012 and June 2013, non-carpoolers in California are projected to pay $54.7 million to drive in carpool lanes that have been rebranded as Express Lanes, according to public budget documents and interviews with project managers.

Most of this revenue will be spent keeping the automated toll facilities running. Early on, few profits will be realized by the government agencies that operate the lanes, but transportation authorities say that’s not the goal. Instead, Express Lanes, also known as High-Occupancy Toll lanes, provide drivers who don’t carpool the choice either to sit in traffic and lose time or to avoid traffic and lose a few dollars. With more possible users, carpool lanes are less likely to sit empty. All the lanes get a little faster as a result, and air quality takes less of a hit.

Two new Express Lanes projects came online this year in California, including on the 110, bringing the statewide total to five. Nationwide, 14 freeways have Express Lanes. The figure should double, and perhaps nearly triple, during the next decade. The growth foretells a new era of so-called congestion pricing as transportation officials increasingly find that people are willing to put a price on their time. During the next decade, more than $2 billion in toll revenues could be collected in California. Though that’s less than half of the L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s budget for a single year, many policymakers still welcome the warm pot of gold and the fresh solution to weaken the $63 billion hit to the economy due to traffic.

“When you pay with time, no one gets any revenue,” Brian Taylor, head of the transportation studies institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, recently said on KCRW. “When you pay with money, you can get revenue, you can then produce parallel bus service, and you can do a variety of other things to try to upgrade and improve the facilities. So that’s one reason why we’re converting that time spent to money spent.”

Of the money expected to come in this fiscal year, roughly $1 out of every $100 is directly budgeted for labor costs, $2 will subsidize express bus service in San Diego, $3 will go toward administrative overhead costs such as marketing and office-space rent, $10 will pay off debt and $25 will be reserved for future improvements, such as more lanes or transit subsidies. The majority -- about $60 out of every $100 -- will go to public and private contractors, such as TransCore, Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol, who collect tolls, maintain infrastructure and police violators.

L.A. transportation policy leaders unveil the Express Lanes in early November. (Paresh Dave/Neon Tommy)
L.A. transportation policy leaders unveil the Express Lanes in early November. (Paresh Dave/Neon Tommy)
CHP will receive at least $1.57 million statewide to provide extra enforcement along Express Lanes.

“So that we’re not depleting our normal patrol officers, (transit agencies) will pay extra and we’ll bring people in on overtime,” CHP Assistant Chief Dan Bower said.

Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Clara, Alameda and Orange counties all have Express Lanes. Riverside, San Bernardino and San Francisco are eyeing similar projects.

Using scanners, FasTrak transponders, sensors and cameras, transportation authorities can charge solo drivers between 25 cents and $1.40 per mile for the right to drive in 11 miles of High-Occupancy Vehicle, or carpool, lanes. The price per mile is constantly adjusted. The goal typically is to keep carpool lane speeds at least twice as fast as the average rush hour speed of 23 mph.

After one month of service in Los Angeles, the average toll paid was $5.90 heading northbound on the 110 during morning rush hour.  So far, the speed on the ExpressLanes has never dipped below 45 mph, project manager Stephanie Wiggins said. If carpoolers ever filled the ExpressLanes, solo drivers would be barred.

The 110 Express Lanes, along with a similar system opening early next year on Interstate 10 east of Downtown L.A., will each exist for at least one year. After looking at preliminary data, Metro’s board will have to decide whether to continue operating the Express Lanes while a final study is finished. They will be looking to see if more people -- and a diverse set of people -- are passing through the corridor in a faster amount of time either in vehicles or buses. If that’s the case and the toll and fine revenues show promise of covering costs, the Express Lanes will be here to stay.

A survey by Metro exactly a decade ago
found that almost two in three county residents polled didn’t support letting solo drivers pay to use carpool lanes. A fresh survey being conducted this winter could yield dramatically different results.

In the first month, solo users of the 110 Express Lanes have included a firefighter rushing from his home in Playa Vista to begin his 24-hour shift at a downtown station, a mother trying to join her son to watch the Notre Dame versus University of Southern California football game and a father from Long Beach hurrying back to his son’s rugby match. That doesn’t mean everyone’s happy with the Express Lanes.

Carlos Peralta used the Express Lanes on weekends in carpools traveling out of Carson. He vowed to never to use them alone.

“I refuse to give them more money than I already have through taxes,” he said. “I bought into the deal just because I had to for the carpools.”

Though cars with two or more people, along with motorcycles, can continue to use the lanes on the 110 for free, drivers must essentially pay at least $32 in tolls up front to get a FasTrak transponder. (Solo drivers in hybrid/electric cars can drive for free starting March 1, 2014.)

“It’s atrocious, with the economy in bad shape, you don’t do that,” said Cheryl Stamps, who was on her way to buy eight transponders for company cars.

Scott Wilson, a London-based public policy consultant blogging about road pricing, criticized free rides for carpoolers.

“The retention of the poorly targeted HOV component...does little besides reward families, couples and the handful of people who may work together and live in sufficient proximity to make it worthwhile,” he wrote. “In all those cases I take the view that if two or more people value an uncongested trip, they can split the cost of the toll.”

Others complained about the $3 monthly fee assessed on people who don’t travel the corridor at least four times each month. San Diego charges a $4.50 fee. Orange County provides the option of paying about seven months worth of fees up front and never having to worry about them again. The Bay Area doesn’t have a fee. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky challenged Metro this week to get rid of the fee by early next year. He wrote that eliminating the fee was needed “to treat all participants in the program equally and fairly.”

In an online chat, Wiggins replied to a critic of the monthly fee, “It doesn't make sense for everyone to get a transponder but it's your choice. If you think you would use it enough or even if you just want to have maximum flexibility, then it's a good idea.”

Wiggins continued, “But keep in mind the goal of the program is better air quality and a better commute for as many people as we can possibly manage it. We're focused on a better Los Angeles and we're testing this program to see if it helps.”

Program managers who launched other Express Lanes projects said that acceptance rose as word spread that drivers were experiencing 20-to-40-minute time savings because they paid or because free lanes had sped up as more people switched onto the carpool lanes. Wiggins said traffic conditions on the 110 won’t stabilize until February. Her first report should come in March.

91 Express Lanes. (OCTA)
91 Express Lanes. (OCTA)
The federal government funded the initial start-up costs in Los Angeles. A private company financed Orange County’s State Route 91 Express Lanes primarily through debt. The Orange County Transportation Authority bought the lanes from the company and is on track to pay off debt by 2030. Ratings agency Fitch recently affirmed its ‘A’ grade for the bonds, saying “long term prospects are favorable for traffic demand given the time savings and limitations of alternatives routes.”

Projected revenue this year from the 91 Express Lanes, the country’s most lucrative set, is $16 million less than the 2007 peak because the downturn in driving during the recession drove formula-based toll prices down. But a new peak should come by 2022, the authority projects. It will take so long because the 91 will get a new normal lane, meaning less usage of Express Lanes.

Other transit agencies have used a mix of local sales tax revenue and federal grants to build Express Lanes. Only the Interstate 680 Express Lane in the Bay Area will require annual six-figure operating subsidies, until 2028.

“Tolls and taxes can both pay to build a road,” UCLA’s Taylor and USC transit policy expert Lisa Schweitzer wrote in a 2003 study of the 91. “But congestion pricing can also reduce traffic delays, fuel consumption, and vehicle emissions, often to a surprising degree. Sales tax finance for transportation, by comparison, does none of these things.”

Any operating income from state Express Lanes must go toward transportation projects in the same corridor. As a result, extra money from San Diego’s Express Lanes helps fund a rapid bus that uses the lanes. Other agencies hope to follow suit with transit improvements or constructing more lanes.

L.A. won’t realize any excess revenues in the current fiscal year, but it’s possible Metro’s board could have something to play with in 2014. On an annualized basis, the 10 and 110 Express Lanes could bring $20 million in revenues against half the costs. Add to that at least $1 million a year in net revenue from $25 and $30 fines levied on toll evaders.

Before this year, only two freeways -- the 91 in Orange County and the I-95 in Miami -- generated $5 million or more in annual revenue, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Both sets of Express Lanes define carpools as having three or more people, a stricter requirement that generates higher profits.

91 Express Lanes toll operations center. (OCTA)
91 Express Lanes toll operations center. (OCTA)
The 91 Express Lanes connect employment centers in Orange County with housing in the Inland Empire. Seventy percent of 91 Express Lanes users are from Riverside. Kenneth Small, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Irvine economics department,  said the key for Orange County is increasing the number of vanpools using the Express Lanes.

“A vanpool system is the closest thing to mass transit because Riverside and San Bernadino have developed in such a sprawled way that it’s hard to develop bus service there,” Small said.

In L.A., Wiggins has signed up 22 new vanpools. Her goal is to hit 100 by the end of 2013. The housing density in South L.A. also allows for express bus service. The pitch to the poor communities of South L.A., residents of which are statistically less likely to pay to use carpool lanes or get a transponder, is that better bus service for them could be financed by solo drivers regularly paying to ease in and out of downtown. More money also would help expand toll networks.

“If you know you’re able to run these buses on these HOT lanes, you can be really confident that you can provide rapid service, which makes the whole bus system more reliable for everyone,” said Asha Weinstein Agrawal, chair of the urban and regional planning department at San Jose State University.

Studies of the 91 Express Lanes by the late Cal Poly San Luis Obispo civil engineering professor Edward Sullivan showed that carpool use rose and accidents decreased in the mid-90s after the HOT lanes appeared. Caltrans and the U.S. Department of Transportation funded the research.

He wrote that providing a “premium service for a premium price can win public acceptance and produce significant travel changes.” People “whose trip urgency or personal situation” justified paying extra finally had an option, Sullivan concluded.

Greg Hulsizer, a former 91 Express Lanes project manager, said his team reimagined commuters as customers. Responding to customer surveys, his team created a fixed toll schedule so people would know the price when the left the home. Toll prices change every few months based on traffic flows and cost-of-living adjustments. The formula takes into account the number of vehicles traveling in each direction per hour rather than the average speed.

Sullivan found one in five of the 28,000 new peak-period travelers on the 91 each day after the Express Lanes opened had been using local routes. He attributed another one in five drivers to population growth. Improved conditions attracted the last three in five drivers. They previously would have avoided the trip altogether or traveled during non-peak times.

Being female “was the factor most strongly associated” with Express Lane use. High income, middle age, college education and commuting all greatly increased a driver’s chances of buying a transponder.

Few people paid tolls daily. Instead, solo drivers used Express Lanes only when they wanted to avoid bad congestion. Thus, more people used Express Lanes in the evening than in the morning because traffic was worse later in the day. In general, SR 91 commuters in the late 90s valued their time at more than $13.

The Express Lanes also led to a 7 percent decrease in the proportion of carpoolers on the 91 as drivers shifted into their own cars when traffic improved in the free lanes. Fifteen months in, tolls had to be raised by 25 cents to because the number of cars using the Express Lanes each day had risen three-fold from the first month.

Agrawal said the growing number of successful models means planners and elected officials will gravitate toward Express Lanes.

“It’s comfortable, it’s not stepping into a void of something that’s not there,” she said.

L.A. Metro’s board voted this week to consider high occupancy toll lanes as an alternative to regular carpool lanes for an expansion of the Interstate 5 freeway between Newhall and the Kern County. San Diego is planning Express Lanes on its own portion of the Interstate 5.

San Diego County already has Express Lanes on a 20-mile stretch of the Interstate 15 through north central San Diego. Rising costs for customer service, maintenance and law enforcement  during the recession coupled with declining Express Lanes use as promotional fares ended threatened to dissolve the excess revenue in San Diego going toward the bus subsidy. But traffic is returning. Revenues have gone up every year since 2006, though they remain halfway behind projections made in 2002. The bus grant jumped from $1 million to $1.3 million this year, and the Express Lane fund had $2.6 million in net assets as of June 30, 2011. Program reserves will fund major maintenance and replacement of the tolling system, said Helen Gao, a spokeswoman for SANDAG, the government agency that operates the I-15 Express Lanes.

SR-237 Express Lanes. (VTA)
SR-237 Express Lanes. (VTA)
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority installed four miles of rush-hour Express Lanes in March, connecting the State Route 237 to Interstate 880. Solo drivers pay up to $1.50 per mile. If traffic slows to below 45 mph, a sign tells solo drivers to keep out. The VTA is figuring out how to reduce the frequency that has to happen.

The agency wants to convert all of its 180 miles of HOV lanes to HOT lanes. Express Lanes on State Route 85 won’t open until at least 2016 with lanes on the Highway 101 lanes behind that. The 101 is projected to generate more than $1 billion in tolls over the first couple of decades.

Santa Clara County and Alameda County share a 14-mile Express Lane on southbound Interstate 680 near Fremont. Opened in Sept. 2009, the lane acts as an Express Lane only during weekdays. The Alameda County Transit Commission says any excess toll revenues, perhaps $80 million in the first two decades, will go toward transit service in the corridor and for building a northbound Express Lane.

Alameda County also is converting a carpool lane to an Express Lane along 12 miles of eastbound Interstate 580, from Pleasanton to Livermore. A westbound lane would follow. The goal is to have the lanes be open access with nearly unlimited entry points along the stretch. That will require zone-based pricing instead of the usual distance-based pricing. The lanes could open as early as fall 2015, according to a Nov. 2012 Alameda County Transportation Commission memo.

Like L.A. County, Riverside adamantly opposed Express Lanes a decade ago, said Kirk Avila, general manager of the 91 Express Lanes. Now, Riverside should see construction of Express Lanes on its portion of the 91 freeway begin late next year. The project will be primarily financed by forthcoming revenues from a local sales tax surcharge and the tolls.

“The successes of the 91 are not only in Orange County, but are being pushed forward into Riverside County,” Avila said.

A recent transportation law signed by President Barack Obama mandates that transponders from one state eventually work in every other state. That’s one of many innovations, including mobile apps and regionally coordinated toll charges, likely to come as Express Lanes spread.

“The future is very positive by necessity,” said Hulsizer, now a transportation consultant. “We don’t have the money or the space to build more lanes, so we have to use the existing network more efficiently.”

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