Slow Start to L.A.’s Toll Lanes Certain to Gain Speed

Given time optional lanes reduce congestion and provide travel options

The new toll lanes on Interstate 10 and the 110 Freeway have opened to a lot of complaints, particularly from drivers not using them. While some have shaved 30 minutes or more off of their commutes by using the toll lanes during rush hour, many other drivers are understandably upset that traffic has gotten worse in the nontoll lanes.

Atlanta, Miami, Minneapolis, Northern Virginia, San Diego and Seattle have all converted car-pool lanes to toll lanes in recent years. And as drivers learned how to get the most value out of the lanes and save the most time, the lanes grew in popularity.

Atlanta converted car-pool lanes to toll lanes last year and had a rough start. But since October 2011, the number of toll lane trips has grown 270 percent, from 160,000 to 440,000 trips as of March 2013.

In Minneapolis, where car-pool lanes were converted to toll lanes in 2005, 76 percent of the public is satisfied with the toll lanes and 85 percent are satisfied with the traffic speed.

On San Diego’s Interstate 15 Express Lanes, similar to the 110 project, the number of vehicles in toll lanes increased 143 percent while travel times decreased by 20 minutes. Travel times also decreased slightly – by one to two minutes – in the general lanes.

In Seattle, traffic volume has remained constant, but speeds in the nontolled lanes have increased 3 percent to 19 percent.

In Los Angeles, there’s no doubt it has been a slow start. The 110 toll lane had 34,806 trips in December and that number grew slightly to 39,213 in February. One of the most promising signs of potential growth for the toll lanes may be the number of FasTrak transponders in use. About 40,000 cars had them before the lanes opened, but more than 155,000 of the $40 transponders needed to use the lanes have been purchased as of early May.

If demand for the toll lanes continues to disappoint, the price of the tolls can be lowered until transportation officials find the pricing sweet spot – keeping traffic free-flowing while maximizing use of the lanes.

With governments at all levels struggling to maintain existing infrastructure and find the funding to build new projects, toll lanes provide a sustainable funding model. The toll lanes should be thought of as the first steps in a high-occupancy toll network throughout Southern California.

Imagine if every Los Angeles freeway had lanes guaranteed to be moving at the speed limit, even during rush hours. This connected network would offer a region-wide, congestion-free alternative to today’s gridlock for emergency vehicles, buses and drivers willing to pay the tolls.

As Los Angeles’ population surges in the decades ahead, congestion pricing will be able to continue to offer uncongested travel conditions. In contrast, as many of today’s already overcrowded carpool lanes show, HOV lanes are not a sustainable solution.

The toll lanes also offer a much fairer funding system. If you use the lanes, you pay for them. If you don’t use them, you don’t pay.

In contrast, when sales tax increases are used to pay for transportation projects – like Measure R in Los Angeles County – everybody pays and the burden is often greatest on low-income residents.

It’s too early to write off the high-occupancy toll lanes. The toll lanes are part of an approach that can ultimately bring Southern California faster commutes and more reliable bus service. After decades of some of the nation’s worst traffic, it’s going to take more than a few months to turn things around.

Baruch Feigenbaum is a transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.