Traffic in the Southland—as well as the condition of our roads and highways—is bad and getting worse. California’s roads used to be among the nation’s best; that’s no longer the case. Our cities have some of the worst traffic congestion in the country. The Los Angeles–Long Beach–Santa Ana region has consistently ranked No. 1 in amount of time and fuel wasted in traffic, according to the Texas Transportation Institute’s Annual Urban Mobility Report.
To make matters worse, our transportation-funding system isn’t keeping up with increased driving—due in part to the slowly improving economy—or with the work that is needed on our decades-old highways. Neither the nation nor most states invest enough money to build, improve, and maintain our roads and public transit systems. Fuel taxes, the mainstay of transportation finance since the 1920s, no longer bring in enough money, mostly because they haven’t been raised since the mid-1990s. State and local governments increasingly fill in the gap with money from sales taxes and bonds, but these aren’t complete solutions.
Express toll lanes are one approach to providing more money for transportation, as well as a new option for drivers to manage traffic. They already exist in parts of the Southland and more such projects are being planned. Here’s a snapshot of how this type of tolling—where the rules can change from place to place—is likely to impact your commute in the near future.
Some Like It Hot
Express lanes, also known as high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, are typically one or more lanes of a freeway where solo drivers who want to drive in specially designated, less-congested lanes are charged a toll via an electronic FasTrak transponder. Carpoolers can usually use these lanes for free or at a reduced rate.
Where you’ve seen them: In Orange County, for 10 miles along State Route 91, from the SR 55 junction to the Riverside County line; in San Diego County, for 20 miles along Interstate 15, between SR 78 in Escondido and SR 163.how they work: Solo drivers with a FasTrak account can pay a toll to use the faster-moving lanes (there will be no toll booths). Carpools, vanpools, and bus riders can use the lanes for free or at a reduced cost. The money collected from tolls usually pays for construction and operation of the lanes (and sometimes transit services on them) and improvements on regular lanes. Even those who don’t use express lanes indirectly benefit from them because they take some cars off the regular lanes.
Carpoolers who now use the I-110 and I-10 carpool lanes in Los Angeles County will soon need to purchase a transponder, even if they never plan to incur toll charges.
Enforcement: Transportation agencies and the CHP currently don’t have the technology to electronically distinguish between solo drivers and carpoolers, leaving it up to drivers to correctly use the transponders. For example, carpoolers in San Diego must remove their transponders to ride for free, and L.A. carpoolers must leave the device in place but flip a switch to avoid the tolls.
Tolls: The primary goal of express lanes is to keep traffic moving. To accomplish this, varying toll rates are charged based on congestion levels or time of day—higher rates during rush hour, lower when there’s little traffic. For the 91 Express Lanes in Orange County, a one-way toll ranges from $1.30 to $9.75, depending on the time of day and day of the week. Cars with three or more people can travel in the lanes for free or at a reduced rate. For the I-15 Express Lanes in San Diego County, toll rates are based on the per-mile rate at the time a car enters the lane and the total distance it travels.
Penalties: Toll-road penalties start at $25 but vary by county. Solo drivers who claim to be carpools may also get hit with a minimum carpool lane fine of $370.
Results: 90 percent of the 91 Express Lanes users polled say they’re happy with the toll lanes; in San Diego, the average rush-hour commute from Escondido to Mira Mesa in the nonexpress lanes has decreased by five minutes because of them.
Rules of the Road
California law requires that all FasTrak toll transponders used within the state be interoperable, meaning that a transponder purchased for the Bay Bridge in Northern California will work on SR 91 in Southern California.
However, each county transportation agency has its own rules and minimum charges or usage requirements, so it’s important to buy your transponder from the agency that operates the express lanes you will use the most. The following are key rules for the Southland’s express lanes:
I-10 and I-110 ExpressLanes, Los Angeles
Everyone who uses the express lanes in L.A. County must buy a transponder, including carpoolers, even though they don’t pay tolls. L.A. County transponders will have a unique switch for drivers to self-declare whether they are riding as part of a carpool or driving solo. Carpoolers who use transponders in the solo driver setting will be charged a toll. And solo drivers who use the carpool setting may be stopped by law enforcement for a toll or carpool violation.
91 Express Lanes, Orange County
Everyone who uses the express lanes in Orange County must buy a transponder. Special Access Accounts are available for carpoolers, motorcyclists, disabled individuals, or drivers of zero-emission cars. These accounts let people avoid paying tolls most of the time except between 4 and 6 p.m. on weekdays, when account users pay half the regular toll rates.
I-15 Express Lanes, San Diego
Only solo drivers who use the express lanes in San Diego are required to display transponders in their vehicles. Carpoolers, motorcyclists, and drivers of zero-emission cars are allowed to drive for free and don’t have to buy a transponder. (When carpooling, drivers with transponders should remove their transponders and place them in supplied Mylar bags to avoid being charged a toll.)
The success of express lanes along State Route 91 and Interstate 15 has spurred similar projects elsewhere in Southern California.
Los Angeles County
Transportation officials are converting existing carpool lanes into what will be known as the Metro ExpressLanes on the I-10 San Bernardino Freeway east of downtown Los Angeles and the I-110 Harbor Freeway from downtown Los Angeles to the South Bay.
Two express lanes will be in place in each direction on I-110 by the end of 2012; lanes will open on I-10 in early 2013. Carpoolers can still ride in them for free, but they must purchase a $40 transponder ($32 for Auto Club members). Toll rates will depend on the distance driven and the congestion level. Travel along the 14 miles of I-10 ExpressLanes and the 11-mile stretch of I-110 will cost between 25 cents and $1.40 per mile, depending on the level of congestion. For more information, visit the Metro website.
Officials are looking at ways to widen I-405 from SR 73 to the Los Angeles County line, with plans that may include express lanes to help pay for construction.
This project is in the formative stages, but construction could start in three to six years. For more information, go to visit the OCTA website.
Orange County officials began engineering work in 2012 on the SR 241 Tesoro Extension, which will extend the 241 Toll Road 5 miles from where it now ends at Oso Parkway to just north of Ortega Highway. The projects will provide an alternative to congested highways in South County. For more information, visit the Toll Roads website.
The SR 91 Corridor Improvement Project will extend Orange County’s express lanes into Riverside County, widening the existing SR 91 by adding two express lanes and a regular lane from the Orange County line through Corona, as well as making improvements to the I-15/SR 91 interchange. Planners expect the new lanes to open by 2017. For more information, go to visit the Riverside County Transportation Commission website.
The I-15 Corridor Improvement Project covers an ambitious 44 miles, widening the highway from Murrieta to Ontario. Plans are still being discussed, but the project may add two new toll express lanes and one regular lane in each direction from Ontario to Lake Elsinore and then continue south with a new carpool lane in each direction toward the I-15/ I-215 interchange near Murrieta by 2020. For more information, visit the Riverside County Transportation Commission website.
Most transponders cost between $30 and $40 if purchased with a debit or credit card. People who pay by cash or check may have to provide an additional deposit. Here are some options on where to purchase the transponders for each county.
I-10 and I-110 ExpressLanes, Los Angeles
Auto Club members are eligible for a 20 percent discount on the initial purchase of a transponder online. Transponders are also available for purchase by phone, by mail, online, or in person at Metro walk-in centers in Gardena and El Monte. Visit the Metro website for more information.
91 Express Lanes, Orange County
Auto Club members are eligible to receive their first two weeks of travel toll-free by indicating their membership at OCTA’s 91 Express Lanes website. Transponders are also available for purchase by phone, by mail, online, or in person at walk-in centers in Corona and Orange. Visit the Express Lanes website for more information.
I-15 Express Lanes and South Bay Expressway (SR 125), San Diego
Transponders are available for purchase by phone, by mail, by fax, by email, online, or in person at walk-in centers in San Diego. Visit fastrak.511sd.com for more information.
SR 241, SR 261, SR 133, SR 73 toll roads, Orange County
Auto Club members are eligible for a 20 percent discount on the initial purchase at AAA.com/fastrak. Transponders are also available for purchase by phone, by mail, online, or in person at limited Costco locations and a walk-in center in Irvine. Visit the Toll Roads website for more information.
Auto Club Views
Using express lanes to address congestion and funding deficits can work, but it’s not a cure-all for our mobility problems. Transportation officials need to ensure that express lanes benefit all motorists and that toll rates remain reasonable and fair. The agencies that operate these lanes also need to simplify and standardize rules for all such facilities across the state. And efforts need to be redoubled to better maintain and improve regular travel lanes, as well as surface streets and public transit.
Charging drivers tolls to bypass congestion is still relatively uncommon in the United States. The Auto Club strongly believes that express lanes should be implemented only if they improve travel time for drivers who choose to pay, without increasing congestion for those who don’t use them. Tolling should not be imposed on existing regular lanes.
Toll revenues should be used first to pay for the cost of constructing, maintaining, and operating the new roads and lanes. Excess revenue should be used to relieve congestion along the express-lane corridor by making other road improvements, enhancing effective public transit services, and providing carpool and vanpool incentives.
HOT lane or express lane tolls can be costly, but they offer motorists a choice for a faster, more predictable commute. Tell us what you think, and find out more about express lanes and other transportation issues at The Road Ahead website.
Marianne Kim is an Auto Club transportation policy analyst.
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