A Win-Win for Our Freeways

Transform carpool lanes to variable-priced toll lanes

The recall election is overshadowing nearly everything else in the state, including the traffic jams most of us sit in daily.

The state’s dire financial condition means many transportation projects have been postponed or shelved. Unfortunately, Southern California’s traffic woes will only get worse in the interim.

As a result, it’s time for us to consider progressive answers to Los Angeles’ legendary gridlock.

Southern California’s freeways could be altered to improve mass transit, guarantee every driver an unclogged alternative and create a much-needed source of revenue for road projects.

By transforming existing and planned car-pool lanes into a network of variable-priced toll lanes, we could guarantee drivers and buses at least one lane moving at the maximum speed limit, at all times, on most Los Angeles freeways.

Buses and high-capacity vans would use the lanes free of charge, dramatically speeding up their trip times and boosting their appeal and effectiveness. Individual motorists would pay a variable toll that would be debited electronically, using FasTrak transponders affixed to a car’s windshield, thus eliminating the need and expense of tollbooths and cash transactions.

The number of vehicles in the managed lanes would be controlled through variable pricing, with rates highest during rush hour, ensuring the lanes are always moving at 65 miles per hour and providing local transportation agencies with a significant source of income for construction and maintenance projects.

A busy Friday afternoon at rush hour would yield some of the highest toll rates – estimated at 40 cents per mile during peak times. That sounds expensive, but consider this: Someone leaving California State University, Northridge, to catch a flight at Los Angeles International Airport could cruise along at 65 miles per hour (on a Friday afternoon) in the toll lane of the 405 Freeway and arrive at LAX in 30 to 35 minutes.

Most business people, and countless others, would deem the 90 minutes saved well worth the $8 toll paid.

Some businesses and commuters would choose to use the lanes every day. Most of us would choose to use the lanes when we have to get to a meeting or a child’s soccer game on time.

Think of it as congestion insurance.

A detailed analysis by the Reason Foundation and several scholars shows that Los Angeles would benefit from these lanes more than any other city in the country. Toll revenues would exceed $922 million per year – that’s nearly $1 billion each year that could be used to unclog our jam-packed roadways.

High-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes are currently used, with great success, in San Diego, Orange County and Houston, Texas.

Everyone in Southern California would win with HOT networks. Individual drivers get the option of faster, more reliable travel when saving time is of the utmost importance. Mass transit riders get a region-wide express bus service that is likely to see increased ridership because of its higher speeds and more reliable schedules. Taxpayers win because they get a major improvement of the transportation system without the need for new taxes. Even drivers who never use the lanes benefit from less congestion in the regular lanes.

The cost of building a network of new lanes and interchanges (so a bus or toll user could switch from the 405 to the 101 without merging into regular traffic), and modifying current lanes, would total $10.8 billion – which seems extreme, particularly amid the budget deficit.

However, since the projected toll revenues are so substantial ($922 million each year), tax-exempt toll revenue bonds, at no taxpayer expense, would be able to cover 86 percent of the costs necessary to create a seamless network of high-occupancy toll lanes. The rest of the funding, just 14 percent, would come from traditional federal and state transportation programs.

Southern California has a choice:

We can continue to watch our highways clog and pour tax dollars into transportation projects, like rail systems, that do nothing to improve our commute times, or we can be proactive and turn part of our freeways into a revenue-producing network that offers top-notch express bus service while also guaranteeing each driver a viable, free-flowing lane for those days that we absolutely have to get somewhere on time.

Robert W. Poole, Jr. is Director of Transportation Studies and founder of Reason Foundation.