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L.A. County enters era of freeway toll lanes

Even since the first ribbon of concrete was laid from downtown to Pasadena in the late 1930s, the mantra of Los Angeles car culture has been that freeways should be free.

L.A. County’s first officially recognized freeway, hugging the contours of the Arroyo Seco, gave way to a network of connecting highways that came to define the growing metropolis as a proudly toll-free region of the country.

But Saturday marks a break with that legacy. For the first time, L.A. County officials will begin charging motorists to use carpool lanes on an 11-mile stretch of the 110 Freeway from downtown to the South Bay.

The 110 express lanes mark the area’s first effort at “congestion pricing,” in which officials allow solo drivers to use less-crowded carpool lanes to cut their commutes by two to three minutes a mile on average — if they are willing to pay as much as $15.40 per trip.

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Toll lanes are already in place in other areas including Orange County, but L.A. County has resisted the idea for years.

Not anymore.

If all goes as planned, a 14-mile toll lane along the 10 Freeway from Union Station to the 605 Freeway will open early next year.

And officials acknowledged this week that they are considering even more carpool lane conversions. One that has gotten considerable attention is the lane being built along the 405 Freeway on the Westside.

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Once that is completed, the 405 will have contiguous carpool lanes from south Orange County to the San Fernando Valley, a tantalizing prize for advocates of congestion pricing.

“The region, especially L.A. County, we have a pretty dense network of [carpool] lanes,” said Doug Failing of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “I really think they’re all up for consideration.”

Transportation officials and some experts say the 110 Freeway experiment is a long-overdue, winning improvement that should benefit all drivers. It will reduce travel times for those willing to pay, they predict, and relieve congestion on the remainder of the freeway as solo commuters shift out of those lanes.

“It’s about time,” said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA who has long advocated for toll lanes. “They work in San Diego; they work in many other cities. We have the worst congestion … and it’s odd that we’re one of the last cities to try it out.”

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As of late last week, about 30,000 transponders, which generally cost about $40 and are needed to travel in the lanes, had been purchased, and several motorists said they resented having to fork over the money.

Many derided the tolls as another hit by government on their paychecks.

“Look at all the tax fees we’re paying already … then they’re coming out with this,” said Lisa Lavine, 45, outside the Gardena office where transponders are sold. “We shouldn’t have to pay to use the everyday freeway.”

Others complained that the new program was a perverse punishment for those who have heeded officials’ calls to carpool.

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Like solo drivers, ride-sharers will need to purchase transponders. But they won’t have to pay the tolls — which vary from 25 cents to $1.40 a mile based on traffic congestion.

The average toll for solo drivers is expected to be between $4 and $7 per trip, officials said.

Nelly Diaz, 38, said she never drives the 110 solo. But she’s still “not very happy,” she said in Spanish outside the Gardena sales office. “I always travel with my kids. It’s always easy for me, but now I have to pay.”

The new “ExpressLanes” are taking over existing carpool lanes between the Harbor Gateway Transit Center near Torrance and Adams Boulevard, just south of downtown.

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Toll collections were scheduled to start Saturday night depending on the weather.

Construction of both the 110 and 10 freeway projects is costing $120 million and is part of a one-year, federally funded demonstration effort. Transportation officials have promised a rigorous evaluation process before deciding if the program will continue or be expanded to other freeways.

Stephanie Wiggins, Metro’s executive in charge of the program, said gross revenue from the 10 and 110 freeway toll lanes should total $18 million to $20 million a year. Program costs are not expected to exceed $10 million, and any extra revenue will be reinvested in transit or carpool improvements in the 110 and 10 freeway corridors.

Marco Ruano, a state transportation official, said the project was a watershed moment in planners’ efforts to ease congestion. The county’s popular carpool lanes have “become a victim of [their] own success” and are getting crowded on some routes.

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“That’s forcing us to be innovative” Ruano said. “We understand we cannot continue to build our way out of congestion.”

California also got a nudge to develop such congestion-relief projects from federal officials who criticized the state five years ago for allowing average rush-hour speeds on some carpool lanes to drop below national standards.

A common complaint about toll lanes is that they may create a two-tiered commuting experience, one for those who can afford to pay for faster travel times and another for everyone else.

It’s “a tax that affects the poorer people more than wealthy.... I’m OK, but there are people who can’t afford it,” said Jim Gardner, a 72-year-old retired doctor from the Palos Verdes Peninsula. He bought a transponder because he uses the 110 Freeway once each week to carpool to the San Gabriel Mountains for hiking trips.

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Though he too was buying a transponder, San Pedro attorney Leslie Walker Van Antwerp III said the toll lanes seemed “undemocratic.”

Shoup, the UCLA professor, discounted such concerns. Low-income motorists will pay less for transponders, he said, and overall congestion should be reduced by the toll lanes. And toll lanes tend to gain in popularity once they are operating, officials argue.

“Once we all get used to it, what once seemed unthinkable will seem indispensable,” Shoup said. “I think just about everybody will gain from this.”

Cab drivers, who rely on carpool lanes to navigate around congestion, are among the loudest critics.

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Varuzh Adamyan, a cab driver for 18 years, said he had no choice but to buy a transponder. “They’re forcing us.... We are paying from our pocket,” said Adamyan, who was leaving the sales office.

Adamyan also worries that the toll lanes will become too popular and trap him in bottlenecks. But the goal, officials said, is to keep the toll lanes moving at a minimum of 45 mph.

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com


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