ExpressLanes Transponders, Coming to a Store Near You…and to the AAA! (Updated 11:30)

Thanks to a new report being presented to the Metro Board of Directors later this month, a clearer picture is emerging on how drivers will be able to access the variable toll lanes on the I-10 and I-110 as part of Metro’s “Express Lanes” program.  The plan to turn High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Lanes into High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) Lanes on these two highways has drawn criticism from both conservatives who see it as double-taxation and liberals who see it as creating a two-tiered transportation system.

Image: Wikipedia

To access ExpressLanes on the 10 and 110, car owners will need to purchase a “FasTrack” responder that will automatically deduct the toll cost from a credit card connected to the responder.  An owner can list as many cars as he or she wants on the transponder.  Each time the vehicle passes underneath a toll collection site, the account is debited to pay the toll. If a vehicle does not have a transponder or if a transponder is not detected at the Toll Plaza, a camera photographs the vehicle and its license plate for processing. If the license plate is registered as belonging to a FasTrak user, the account is debited only the toll charge, and no penalty is charged.  If there is no FasTrack account, the owner of the vehicle is charged for using the lane and issued a ticket.

Yes, transponders bought for use on the I-10 and I-110 can be used on other HOT Lanes that use FasTrack.

One of the main arguments against Congestion Pricing is the “Lexus Lanes” argument.  This argument posits that only the rich support road pricing because it allows them to buy their way out of traffic.  However, polling shows roughly equal support for congestion pricing among people of all income levels because even people who would only use the lanes in an emergency appreciate the opportunity for a congestion free commute.  However, for it to be practical for ExpressLanes to be useful to occasional riders, the transponders needed to access the lanes need to be affordable and easy to purchase.

The good news is that Metro seems to realize that it needs to plan the distribution of the transponders a little better than it did distribution of the TAP Cards.  In addition to selling at Kiosks and Metro stations near the ExpressLanes on the 10 and 1110, transponders will be on sale at retail locations and for a discounted price through the Southern California Automobile Club (the local chapter of AAA.)  It would be nice if Metro included other automobile clubs such as Better World in its distribution plans, but the deal with AAA would be the first of its kind for FasTrack despite the transponders being sold in Orange County, the Inland Empire, Greater San Diego and the Bay Area.

The real test will be how the transponders are priced.  In the Bay Area, an initial prepaid balance of $25 per transponder is required if paying by credit card, or $50 if using cash or check.  In addition, a $20 deposit is required for all toll tags, which is waived for the first three tags per account for credit card users.  However, things are more expensive in San Diego.  The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), who administers the HOT lanes on Interstate 15 in San Diego County, requires a $40 deposit to obtain a transponder. Customers are charged a $3.50 per month minimum fee and $1 a month minimum fee for each transponder they hold.  In the Bay area, customers are not charged a monthly fee.

The monthly fee for owning a transponder may be the greatest barrier for drivers of lesser means to afford an occasional congestion free commute.  Metro hasn’t announced how much it plans to charge for the privilege of having a FasTrack responder in one’s car.

Update, 11:30 – Metro just sent along its pricing sheet for the FasTrack transponders including a program to encourage purchase by people of lower incomes.   I’ve uploaded the sheet to Streetsblog and you can read it here, but basically it will cost $40 for the initial setup of a FasTrack responder which will entirely go towards a prepaid toll account.  For people of lower incomes, the startup cost will be only $15,  but the account will still be credited $40.  The $3 monthly account maintenance fee will be waived for those qualifying with smaller incomes.