Tolls to hit $1 a mile on 91 Freeway lanes O.C. to begin charging $1 a mile for peak tolls on the 91 Freeway

Times Staff Writer

First came the $5 cup of coffee. Then the $10 movie ticket. Now get ready to pay $10 to drive a toll road -- about $1 a mile. And that doesn’t even include the gas. Or the coffee.

Starting next week, Friday-afternoon commuters on the eastbound 91 Express Lanes will have to dip deeper into their wallets to escape endless congestion on the Riverside Freeway. The $10 toll is among the highest in the nation and comes nine months after the boost to $9.25. It will be in effect from 3 to 4 p.m.

Express lane officials argue that the toll lanes are too popular, which slows travel for paying customers. By using so-called congestion pricing, they hope to persuade some commuters to travel during cheaper hours.

But frequent express-lane commuters are crying foul, saying that as the Inland Empire’s population swells, more traffic is added to the daily commute, negating any positive effects from higher rates.

“I think it’s ridiculous. I feel they haven’t really validated the rate increase,” said Richard Bangert, who travels the toll lanes daily from his home in Corona to his job in Orange County. “Here you have people living in the Inland Empire holding down jobs elsewhere and they can barely afford gasoline and now these increasing rates. I feel they’re getting railed.”


Not so, said Joel Zlotnik, a spokesman for the Orange County Transportation Authority, which owns and operates the express lanes.

“The purpose of the congestion pricing is to ensure the lanes are providing a free-flow and consistent ride for our customers,” he said.

By raising the peak toll, drivers are encouraged to travel during off-peak hours, Zlotnik said.

The OCTA isn’t the only agency in the state to use a sliding fee scale. Part of Interstate 15 in San Diego also uses a similar, but less expensive, pricing scheme. San Francisco has congestion pricing in place on several roads and is considering a plan similar to London’s, under which motorists would be charged for entering the downtown area, or even for entering the city’s limits.

And earlier this month, the Metropolitan Transportation Agency proposed converting carpool lanes on three Los Angeles County freeways into toll lanes. The tolls would rise during rush hour to help keep the paying customers moving.

But commuters such as Bangert contend that the nearly biannual toll increases on the 91 Express Lanes are becoming painfully expensive and seem to penalize those who work in Orange County but live elsewhere.

In addition to the increase on Fridays, the eastbound toll during the same 3 to 4 p.m. hour will increase from $4.95 to $5.95 on Wednesdays and from $4.95 to $5.70 on Thursdays, Zlotnik said.

The higher toll rates indicate a demand for extra capacity, said Peter Samuel, who edits a Web-based news service specializing in toll roads.

“They need to widen the 91 Freeway and look at a whole range of alternatives, including building a tunnel through the local mountains as was talked about,” Samuel said. “The new toll is one of the highest in the country. But if you’re reaching the saturation point with traffic, you’ve got to raise the cost, or otherwise the idea for having toll roads breaks down.”

The 91 Freeway is one of the most congested highways in Southern California. More than 320,000 vehicles use the freeway each day to commute between Orange and Riverside counties.

When OCTA purchased the express lanes, a ban prohibiting freeway improvements was eliminated. OCTA has plans to widen the lanes and is working with Riverside County, which wants to extend to the toll lanes into that county.