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Toll-lane project faces renewed opposition in Congress

An experiment to charge solo drivers to use speedier carpool lanes on two of Los Angeles’ most congested freeways has hit renewed opposition in Congress as two influential lawmakers — a Republican and a Democrat — say the plan is unfair to taxpayers and would create a two-tier transportation system for rich and poor.

Rep. Gary G. Miller of Diamond Bar, the senior California Republican on the House Transportation Committee, said the toll of up to $1.40 a mile during peak periods “absolutely infuriates me.” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) said it would set up a “traffic system of haves and have-nots.”

Miller is exploring legislation to put the brakes on the project on the 110 and 10 freeways even though it is in the late planning stages. He has also gained an important ally in his fight to block similar projects in the future: House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.).

The plan by the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority calls for giving solo commuters the option of paying to use the carpool lanes on the 110 Freeway south of downtown beginning in late 2012 and on the 10 Freeway east of downtown starting in early 2013.

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Tolls would vary based on the volume of traffic, ranging from 25 cents to $1.40 a mile. The MTA projects the average toll during peak traffic to be $6 to travel nine miles on the 10 Freeway and $4 for a five-mile trip on the 110. Some solo commuters could pay up to $19.60 for the privilege of blowing past slow-moving traffic at rush hour.

The lanes cover a 14-mile stretch of the 10 from Alameda Street to the 605 Freeway and an 11-mile stretch of the 110 from Adams Boulevard to the Artesia Transit Center at 182nd Street.

The idea of charging a toll in the land of the freeway was once unimaginable, but Los Angeles transportation planners took advantage of a $210-million federal grant to study whether “congestion pricing” improves traffic for all commuters by freeing up space in regular lanes. With limited money and land to expand or build freeways, the government must find ways to better manage traffic on existing roads.

If this experiment works, the MTA is expected to consider extending such tolls to the carpool lanes on other clogged Los Angeles freeways.

Even though driving in the carpool lane is voluntary, Miller said the toll would be tantamount to a double taxation on motorists, who already paid gasoline taxes to build the freeway lanes.

“If you want to do a toll road, build a toll road with private funds,” he said in a Capitol Hill interview. “But don’t use taxpayers’ dollars to build a road and then charge them to use it.”

Waters, whose district includes part of 110 Freeway corridor, said in a statement that she too had “significant concerns” about the project’s effect on low- and middle-income drivers.

“I don’t think it’s fair that drivers of lesser means, making a grueling commute to go to work and make ends meet for their families, should sit in stand-still traffic while those who can afford to pay about $4 for a one-way trip get to use the carpool lane,” Waters said.

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Despite the new round of opposition, it is unclear whether the plan can be stopped.

And many say it shouldn’t be.

County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who wrote legislation for the project when he was a state lawmaker, said: “In an era when L.A. County is scraping and scratching for every dollar it can get, why would anyone advocate that we leave $210 million on the table?”

The MTA approved the one-year toll experiment 20 months ago and has signed contracts for improvements related to the plan, including ordering more buses and breaking ground on a new El Monte transit center.

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But even if this round of money has been spent, Miller wants to put an end to tolling projects on roads already paid for by taxpayers. Mica said he too opposes “taking any existing capacity that’s free and tolling it,” and, in fact, wrote into federal law a ban on tolling existing segments of the interstate highway system that run through his district.

Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach), a Transportation Committee member, is open to the experiment but would like the carpool lanes open to all drivers during non-rush-hour periods. Rep. Judy Chu (D-El Monte), whose district includes the 10 corridor, said she had “strong concerns” but stopped short of calling for the project to be stopped.

Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine) said the tolling decision was best left to local and state governments. There are “a lot of decisions we make [in Washington] that have to be made here. I don’t think that’s one.”

The toll projects enjoy public support, said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies for the Reason Foundation, a Santa Monica think tank. “Every place that has them in operation, they’re very popular.” They are in use on Interstate 15 in San Diego County, as well as in other states, including Texas, Florida and Washington.

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According to the Florida Department of Transportation, a seven-mile project on Interstate 95 that is almost identical to the MTA’s has greatly improved travel speeds in that section of highway for paying and non-paying motorists.

During the evening rush hour, for example, studies show that the average speed has increased from 20 mph to 56 mph in the tolled carpool lanes and from 20 mph to 41 mph in the regular highway lanes.

Officials with the San Diego Assn. of Governments say motorists have been able to travel faster along a 16-mile section of I-15 in north San Diego County since tolled carpool lanes, along with reversible lanes, were opened.

Opponents, however, have condemned them as “Lexus lanes” that create a separate transportation system for the affluent.

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Miller’s district, which covers parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, includes a toll road — the 91 Express Lanes. He doesn’t oppose those because they were built with money generated by tolls paid by commuters who use the road. He raised objections to the Los Angeles County tolling projects in 2008. But now, with his party in control of the House, he is in a stronger position to try to stop them.

Miller fears that such tolls will eventually be extended to carpoolers who now use the lanes free of charge, though the MTA says it has no plans to do so. (In Atlanta, officials plan to begin charging two-person carpools along with solo commuters for using the carpool lanes, because they have become congested.)

Miller and Waters also expressed concern that the project would increase congestion in carpool lanes. But the MTA says its plans will prohibit — via warning signs — toll-paying solo motorists from entering carpool lanes if the speed falls below 45 mph.

Stephanie Wiggins, MTA executive officer of the project, said it represented a choice for commuters. “You only pay to use those lanes if you choose to,” she said.

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“While all of the general-purpose lanes remain free, what we want to do is demonstrate whether or not congestion pricing can work in our county,” she added. “We know that they’ve worked elsewhere, not only in the state but across the country. Given the amount of congestion that we have in L.A. County, we’re looking at all potential solutions to see what can we do to improve mobility out there for everyone.”

MTA officials said low-income commuters would benefit from improvements in traffic flow in the regular lanes. Bus service also will be improved, officials say, and low-income commuters can seek a one-time $25 subsidy to use the express lanes. The $20 million a year in projected revenue from the tolls will be used to fund transit and carpool-lane improvements on the 10 and 110 freeways.

richard.simon@latimes.com

Times staff writer Dan Weikel contributed to this report.

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