Out of Control Policy Blog

Toll Lanes are Vital to Reducing Traffic Congestion in Orange County

Large metro areas across the country are building express toll lane networks or converting their existing high occupancy vehicle (HOV) networks to express toll lane networks. However, as I wrote in an Orange County Register Op-Ed titled Toll Lanes Are Key to Reducing Traffic Congestion in Southern California, Orange County California is not one of those metro areas.

The fact that Orange County is embracing the status quo is particularly surprising since SR 91 features the first express lanes in the country. These managed lanes offer drivers the option of paying a small toll to experience a congestion-free trip on one of the most congested corridors in the country. The success of SR 91 has led to electronic toll lanes from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. 

Electronic toll lanes benefit more than just cars. They increase the quality of transit service as well. With infrastructure needs far outpacing revenue, these lanes are the most realistic methods for reducing congestion and increasing mobility. 

The entire Op-Ed is available here. The first part of the Op-Ed is below.

Orange County’s 91 Express Lanes, the first variably priced toll lanes in the nation when they opened in 1985, are a major success. Commuters can shave 30 minutes off their commute time by using the Express Lanes, and 90 percent of users say they are satisfied. 

The effectiveness of the 91 Express Lanes, which offer a congestion-free ride by charging tolls that rise when there is more traffic congestion, proved that putting toll lanes on Southern California freeways was beneficial and politically feasible. 

But, while San Diego is aggressively moving forward with plans to add high-occupancy toll lanes and build HOT lane networks, Orange County is stalling. 

Caltrans proposed converting high-occupancy vehicle lanes to HOT lanes on part of I-5 and building new HOT lanes on I-5, I-405, the 73 and part of the 91. The current carpool lanes would become toll lanes, open to any driver willing to pay a fee for access to faster-moving lanes. Yet many local leaders oppose new HOT lanes. Last December, popular opposition became so strong that the Orange County Transportation Authority decided to not add HOT lanes on I-405. 

This resistance comes despite the success of Express Lanes and other HOT lane projects in Southern California. When the I-10 and I-110 carpool lanes were converted to HOT lanes in Los Angeles, speeds in the I-110 general lanes remained constant at 48 mph, yet speeds in the HOT lanes increased to 65 miles per hour. HOT lane commuters are saving 15 to 30 minutes per trip. 

On San Diego’s 15 Express Lanes, the number of vehicles in toll lanes increased 143 percent while travel times decreased in both the general purpose lanes and the HOT lanes. 

So why are some Orange County politicians opposed to toll lanes?

Some claim HOT lanes are “Lexus Lanes” and only for the wealthy. Yet studies of I-10, I-110 and SR 91 show drivers in all income groups use HOT lanes. The five most popular vehicle models in the HOT lanes are the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.

Other critics claim that highway agencies do not use the toll money on transportation projects. However, the OCTA uses the revenue to maintain the highway and expand the general purpose lanes on the highway. L.A. Metro uses the I-10 and I-110 toll revenues to maintain the highway and provide transit service.

The entire Op-Ed is available here.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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