Doing the math on 'Lexus lanes'

Congestion pricing pencils out for those who want to travel faster. And it takes some of the burden of funding transit off the poor.

Some people are pretty good at being stuck in traffic. They gab on the phone, listen to music, chalk up the inconvenience as inevitable.

Not I.

Generally speaking, I sweat, curse and think miserable thoughts. And I'm on the road a lot, which has been known to sour my disposition.

Once, I hired a day laborer to travel with me so I could use the carpool lanes and ease my burden. I still think there ought to be day laborer stations along the highway, because everybody wins, but for some reason the idea hasn't caught on.

Last week, I went with a different option. I bought a FasTrak transponder, which means I can now use the 110 Freeway Express Lanes over an 11-mile stretch between Adams Boulevard and the 91 Freeway. Early next year, the 14-mile stretch of the 10 Freeway, between downtown and the 605, will also have Express Lanes in the one-year trial program.

The transponder, which you stick on your windshield, costs $40, but there are discounts for low-income drivers and at the Auto Club and Costco. Once you register your device on the Metro website, you're good for $40 worth of tolls, and after that, sensors will detect your use of Express Lanes and bill your credit card.

So on Wednesday afternoon, headed south on the 110 Freeway, traffic was backing up just beyond downtown. As I approached Adams with my new transponder, an overhead sign listed a price of $2.70 to get to the 105, and $3.80 to the 91.

How much time would I save for almost $4?

There was no way to know. The prices, by the way, go up in heavier traffic, to as high as $15.40 for 11 miles.

I'm out at that price. If $15.40 isn't too rich for your blood, you and Mitt Romney can race each other.

For $3.80, though, I was in, and my investment began paying off almost immediately. I was zipping along at 60 mph while cars in the regular lanes were moving at about half that speed.

But around Century Boulevard, I began to feel like I'd been suckered. I was still moving at a good clip, but so were drivers who weren't paying $3.80. It took me a total of 11 minutes to go from Adams to the 91, and I'm guessing I only saved a couple of minutes by using the Express Lanes.

So here's a whole new set of choices with which to burden yourself, Angelenos.

Do you toll, or do you roll with the rest of the crowd?

What is a minute of your time worth?

And is this system fair, or does it make for yet another class distinction in an already-stratified region?

I can't tell you what your time is worth. But I can tell you I'm a big supporter of congestion pricing and toll lanes, even though they're sometimes derisively referred to as "Lexus lanes."

Why?

We can't add much more roadway, but as the population grows, we'd be wise to find ways to more efficiently use what we've got while adding transit options and encouraging more carpooling. And that's the whole point of toll lanes.

In theory, everyone benefits. The driver who chooses to pay a premium goes faster, but the driver who doesn't pay goes a little faster, too, for no extra charge. That's because as single-occupant vehicles and carpoolers are lured out of regular lanes and into the toll lanes, the volume is lowered in the regular lanes.

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