A controversial monthly fee tied to Los Angeles County's new toll lane system was suspended Thursday after a lengthy discussion and divided vote by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.
For the next six months, Los Angeles County residents will not be charged a $3 monthly maintenance fee for their transponders — coaster-sized devices that track toll lane usage and fees.
Some carpoolers and solo motorists who would use the lanes infrequently have said that the monthly charge discouraged them from buying the $40 transponder. To avoid the maintenance fee, drivers must use the toll lane at least four times a month.
"The infrequent users who live in Los Angeles are really being treated unfairly," said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who proposed the fee hiatus. Dozens of motorists have written to him protesting the fee, he said. Metro received similar letters and phone calls.
Five months after the county launched its "congestion pricing" experiment on the 110 Freeway, officials continue to closely monitor the effects of the toll lanes. In theory, the pay lanes should speed up traffic in all freeway lanes, officials say. Solo drivers can pay 25 cents to $1.40 per mile — based on traffic conditions — to zip into the toll lanes, which so far have averaged at least 45 miles per hour during peak periods.
Preliminary data on the 110 Freeway test show traffic in the former carpool-only lanes declined and congestion in free lanes increased. Metro expects the traffic improvements to even out as more drivers adopt the toll lanes.
The decision to suspend monthly fees comes as Metro is pushing ahead with a plan to expand the toll lane network, which so far covers stretches of the 110 and 10 freeways. On Thursday, the Metro board approved an environmental impact report for toll lanes expected to be built on the 5 Freeway near Santa Clarita over the next decade.
The number of drivers using the 110 Freeway toll lanes has risen steadily since the lanes opened in November. Nearly 150,000 people now own transponders, up from 105,000 in February. The freeze on monthly fees should encourage more enrollment, Metro said.
"There's a segment of the public that was hanging out on the sidelines," said Stephanie Wiggins, Metro's ExpressLanes project manager. Metro will analyze whether the number of users rises while the monthly fee is suspended, as well as the effect on the project's income, which totaled about $3 million in the first three months of operation.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas opposed the fee suspension, saying Metro should not tamper with the toll lane project until a one-year test phase is complete. He also said the monthly fee isn't as big an issue as some claim.
"There is a ... difference of opinion of the merit of the program," Ridley-Thomas said. "It's a pilot project. It's simply too soon."