Citing the time saved for Los Angeles County drivers who were willing to pay an extra fee, transportation officials Thursday unanimously approved extending the life span of 25 miles of experimental toll lanes on the 110 and 10 freeways.
Elected officials and Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority staff members said Thursday that tolling provided a new option for commuters crawling along a 900-mile freeway network that is largely built out.
“People point out often that ‘freeways mean free,’” Metro board member and Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose district includes the 10 Freeway toll lanes, said during a discussion Thursday. “But the reality is, we probably aren’t going to be building any more freeways... and there’s an unbelievable amount of convenience that this is creating.”
The toll lanes, which link the South Bay and El Monte to downtown Los Angeles, are the county’s first attempt at “congestion pricing,” or charging solo drivers varying prices to use carpool lanes. Tolls begin at 25 cents a mile and can go up to $1.40 a mile, depending on how crowded the toll lanes are at the time.
The toll program won’t become permanent unless state lawmakers approve a bill introduced by Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), which would allow Metro to operate the lanes indefinitely and could make it possible for the agency to add toll lanes to other freeways. Thursday’s Metro vote sent a signal to Sacramento that local lawmakers support such a decision, staff members said.
“We’ve had a very, very successful project that I think is going to do nothing but grow,” Molina said.
Experts say successful test toll lanes could kick-start a congestion-pricing era in Los Angeles. Metro has had public hearings on a similar program proposed for the 5 Freeway, and some say solo drivers could eventually be charged to use most or all of the county’s 453-mile network of carpool lanes.
Officials cited mostly positive numbers from a report published this week that gave the toll lanes mixed reviews. The analysis by an independent contractor said the lanes had mostly met the federal benchmark of keeping toll-lane traffic moving at least 45 mph during rush hour. The program also boosted ridership on an express bus line that uses the lanes, the report said.
But many drivers paying tolls shaved just two or three minutes off their commute times, the report said, and some drove more slowly than they would have in the carpool lanes two years ago.
Metro directors also voted 8 to 3 to charge every driver with a FasTrak account a $1 monthly maintenance fee. When the toll lanes opened, Metro charged $3 a month for any driver who used them less than four times a month.
“Someone who utilizes a car on our freeways has an option,” said Molina, who sponsored the motion. “They can pay for that option.”
Several public speakers said they were concerned that a fee for every driver, including infrequent carpoolers or solo drivers, would discourage people from signing up for accounts. During the months that Metro waived the account maintenance fees, sign-ups for the tolling devices increased, the agency has said.