Hearts and Minds: Comments Sections Shows Confusion, Anger for I-10 and I-110 HOT Lanes

Earlier this week, Metro and Caltrans broke ground on the I-10 and I-110 to convert HOV Lanes into variable toll lanes that also allow carpools free access to the lanes.  Metro received $210 million for the project from the federal government, most of which will go into transit improvements for the impacted corridors.  The project removes almost no cars (only the very few that are electric or zero emission) that can currently use the carpool lanes, but will charge solo car drivers somewhere between twenty-five cents and $1.40 per mile.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, Richard Katz and Mayor Villaraigosa pose for pictures for the groundbreaking of an unpopular project. Photo:##http://blogs.laweekly.com/informer/2011/07/hot_toll_lanes_angeles_110.php##L.A. Weekly##

The truth is, we don’t really know how this project is going to shake out.  Nowhere in America has anyone converted HOV Lanes to toll lanes of any sort, and you can’t even really call the plan “congestion pricing” because the toll option will be removed when there are too many carpools in the lanes for them to run efficiently.  The uncertainty about the result is why USDOT was willing to pay Metro so much to experiment with the program.

Unfortunately, almost none of this information has penetrated the larger public consciousness.  Comments on news websites are running somewhere between 80%-90% against the project.  Most of the comments are wildly uninformed.  Because you’ll doubtless end up in a conversation about this at some point, Streetsblog proudly presents the answers to most of the misinformed comments out there.  And if you like reading crazy comments sections, Steve Lopez’s defense of the project seems to have drawn the craziest comments, with KPCC and the Times’ regular coverage coming in second. Uninformed Argument #1: This is a liberal conspiracy to take away our freedom/social engineer us/tax us to death.

Reality: The funding for this project came from the Federal Transit Administration.  Also, while they haven’t weighed in on this project, congestion pricing is a favorite concept of the Libertarian Reason Foundation.

Uninformed Argument #2: This is a Republican conspiracy to create a series of “have and have nots” when it comes to transportation.

Reality: Whenever polling is done in areas where congestion pricing is tried, it receives approval from roughly the same percentage of lower-income people as upper-income people.  Also, the amount of money flowing into the transit projects in the area will do a lot more to help the “have nots” that can’t afford the high cost of a long-distance car commute everyday.

Also, there is a program to give a $25 credit to lower income drivers.

Uninformed Argument #3: This amounts to double taxation since WE already paid to build this road

Reality:  First, maintaining highways isn’t free, and any profit from the congestion charge will go back in to maintaining the highways and transit to the corridor.  Second, gas taxes pay only a small portion of highway construction, so drivers haven’t paid for the road themselves anyways.  Drivers that use this road haven’t paid for its construction nor its maintenance on their own.

Uninformed Argument #4: But I bought an electric car just to use these lanes!

Reality: Ok, that does suck.  But the reality is your electric car doesn’t really do anything to reduce congestion.

Uninformed Argument #5: This will create more congestion.

Reality: Single passenger vehicles will lose the ability to buy their way into the lanes when the lanes are too congested.

Uninformed Argument #6: The tolls will just go to pay for the toll collections.  The unions are eating up the money!

Reality: They’re won’t be toll booths or collectors.  They’re using transponders, which come with their own sets of problems.  You can read our coverage of these issues here and here.

Uninformed Argument #7: They’re called freeways for a reason.

Reality: They are.  They’re called freeways because they are a strip of land devoted towards mobility where the adjacent property owners have no air or other rights.  That’s the definition.  Look it up.

Do you have, or have you heard, a more ridiculous argument?  Leave it in the comments section, and we’ll try to take it on.  Which is not to say that Metro’s ExpressLanes proposal is bullet-proof or a slam dunk.  By doing nothing to relieve the existing congestion in the toll lane during the rush hours, the ExpressLanes are sort of the opposite of true congestion pricing, and will actually add capacity during non-peak hours.

  • Anonymous

    Another response to #1 is that market pricing is the exact OPPOSITE of social engineering.

    A third response to #1 is that the tolls will be 25 cents most of the time, and who can’t afford that? (Look at the SR-91 toll schedule and notice that most of the time slots show the lowest toll rate.)

    Here’s some more support for the response to #2: “”Support [for HOT lanes] is high across all income groups, with the lowest income group expressing stronger support than the highest income group (80% vs. 70%).” http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/otps/vpqrrt/sec1.htm

    And: “As a group low-income residents, on average, pay more out-of-pocket with sales taxes” for freeways than with tolls. http://www.springerlink.com/content/l168327363227298

    Another response to #3 is that the variable toll saves a LOT of tax money that would otherwise be needed to widen the freeway. Throwing good money after bad is never a good strategy.

    A third response to #3 is that the toll isn’t to pay for the road, it’s to pay for the congestion you cause. The way the variable tolls work is less congestion you cause, the less you pay.

  • Juan Matute

    Thank you for doing this.  I was going to ask a research assistant to go through the LAT comments and categorize them into different arguments.  Another fact is that a “managed” lane has a capacity of over 2100 vehicles/hour, while a congested lane has a capacity of ~1300 or fewer vehicles/hour.  The movement of traffic isn’t intuitive, and this is hard to understand, but converting the HOV lanes to HOT lanes will actually increase freeway capacity.  An increase in capacity would lead to reduced travel times in a situation where there isn’t residual demand (e.g., drivers who take an alternate route, avoid peak times, or forgo trips) waiting to take advantage of that increase in capacity.  This still means that more people are getting places quicker with the HOT lane than with the HOV lane.

  • Juan Matute

    This is true.  4 managed lanes (4*~2100=8400) has slightly more peak hour capacity as 6 unmanaged lanes (6*1300=7800).  Adding a lane can be very expensive, and managed lanes can have the same capacity effects as adding a lane while making other transportation choices (carpool, bus) more attractive.

  • Juan Matute

    I wanted to add that the HOT are not true “managed” lanes because nothing can be done to keep additional carpoolers from making the system unstable. Increasing vehicle flow over ~2100 cars per hour can lead to instability in the system where a sudden traffic hazard can cause all cars to slow suddenly, almost instantaneously reducing lane capacity from above 2000 to below 1500 vehicles per hour.  What results is traffic congestion. 

  • Ken F.

    This exact type of HOV to HOT lane conversion has been done on the 680 freeway in the Bay Area. So far, the revenue has been paltry and the lane has been highly ineffective at reducing congestion. Granted, this corridor has no where near the levels of congestion on the 110 and 10 freeways, and given reduced traffic levels from the recession, the effectiveness of the toll lane cannot be adequately analyzed. It was probably the wrong location for such an experiment, but so far, it has been a massive failure and a huge waste of money. Tolls collected from lane users were intended to pay for HOT lane construction in the opposite direction, but at this rate, the current lane will never be able to even pay for itself.

  • Matt

    I would like to know how they are going to spend the income from the tolls (currently estimated at $20M).  I know transit improvements, but not sure if they have specifically figured out where.  I imagine it will fund operations of those 50-60 buses they bought.  We can expect beefed up service on the Silver Line. 

    Looking forward to the experiment and I hope the 405 through the Sepulveda pass and West LA can be added to help fund a transit line in this corridor.

  • Anonymous

    “So far, the revenue has been paltry and the lane has been highly ineffective at reducing congestion.”

    That’s because there’s hardly any congestion to reduce. “So far, the toll lane has not had much of an effect, mainly because the
    traffic congestion it was supposed to address has largely been tamed by
    the economic slump, said Dave Hyams, a spokesman for the project. The
    average speed during peak hours in the non-toll lanes is 57 miles per
    hour, up from 56.9 m.p.h. since it opened. The toll lane averages a
    swifter 65.8 m.p.h. — swifter even than the 65 m.p.h. speed limit.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/us/06bccongestion.html

  • Paulkman

    You state that “Nowhere in America has anyone converted HOV Lanes to toll lanes of any sort”. This is untrue. In the last decade, Minnesota converted the HOV lane on Interstate 94 to a hybrid carpool/toll lane very much like the one described. The price changes depending on congestion and it uses transponders. The only difference is that the lane never closes to payers.

    We had a lot of the same arguments about the transition when it happened here, but it’s turned out to not be a big deal.

  • Eric B

    “…to convert HOV Lanes into variable toll lanes that also allow carpools free access to the lanes…”
    As long as you buy the fancy transponder thing and pay the monthly maintenance fee.  Goodbye casual carpooling.
    Given that the feeling of loss among existing users is THE primary source of opposition to the new system, you’d think they’d have fixed this problem by now.  The goal should be statewide near-universal adoption of Fastrak transponders.  A maintenance fee for “inactive” users (i.e. those that don’t drive, or drive the same route, every day) is directly counter to this broader goal.  What if TAP charged a maintenance fee for casual transit users?  (Maybe I shouldn’t give them any ideas.)

  • My apologies to Minnesota and the Bay Area.  We’ll make sure to make note of that in the future.

  • Yikes.  I obviously need to do a little more reading.

  • Anonymous

    There are plenty of “HO/T” projects that have just or are about to come on-line in the US thanks to the Bush (43) Administration and in particular this no-previous-transportation-experience NeoCon:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/16/AR2008031603085.html

    (Although it is debatable if L.A. Metro’s “Express Lanes” are truly “HO/T”)

    Damien, in this project they are not only kicking out the white and green HOV-pass stickers (the electric, CNG, LNG cars you reference; the yellows for non-plug-in Hybrids just expired), they are, as Eric B notes, kicking out the casual carpoolers who do not have a FasTrak transponder.  If you don’t make at least 2 carpool roundtrips per month in these lanes, you will have to pay a monthly fee on top of the deposit to have the LA Metro FasTrak transponder.

    Indeed, L.A. Metro are also introducing a new form of FasTrak transponder that has a “Carpool Switch” such that the owners of the current FasTrak transponders from OCTA, Sandag or the Bay Area’s MTC areas will not be able to use these Express Lanes without paying the Solo Driver rate, regardless whether they are carpooling or not.

    (I just hope the folks traveling in the Number 1 lane closest to the Express Lanes with an exposed FasTrak are not “accidentally” charged too!  Whoopsee will that be fun!)

    In addition to the above, the new regulations will prevent any Out-of-Town Tour Coach from using the Express Lanes, along with any intercity (Greyhound., El Paso-Los Angeles Limo, Luxbus, etc.) bus that does not traverse/enter into the state enough for their owners to bother outfitting their entire fleet with a Carpool-switch equipped FasTrak.

    Not that these HOV lanes had any excess capacity to begin with, but maybe with the removal of Sticker-owners, Buses and casual groups they will.

    Thankfully, the widening of I-10 will allow those Express Lanes to be two in each direction.  Why that space on I-10 could not have been used to double-track the Metrolink San Bernardino Line which is currently single-track, save for one passing siding near I-710, from west of CalState L.A. to El Monte can probably be explained away to engineering and the stove-pipe funding mechanisms we use in this country and the lack of comprehensive transportation planning in both the US and California.

    Do not forget that what we today call the HOV lanes on I-10 is still officially the El Monte Bus-way:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Monte_Busway

    It was built, IIRC, with Transit money, not gas tax, because it was intended to be a bus-only facility.  Of course, thanks in part to current-Secretary of Labor and once-amateur un-licensed traffic engineer Hilda Solis, it was opened to cars with disastrous effect:

    http://articles.latimes.com/2000/jan/22/news/mn-56559

    Might we see a repeat?

  • Zmapper

    Denver also converted a HOV lane into a HOT lane.

  • Asdada

    As a freeway builder I hate the conversion of HOV to HOT. One of the chestnuts that I often use when taking peoples homes and businesses is that the HOV will be for the greater good. For the greater good is not necessarily true for HOT.

  • Erik T

    It was the interstate spur I-394 between Minnetonka and Downtown Minneapolis. When it first opened it actually created more congestion. This was because during non rush hour periods HOV lanes in Minnesota can be used by single occupancy vehicles. When it became a HOT lane it was a toll lane/carpool lane at all times. This had an unintentional effect of removing a lane from the freeway for single occupancy vehicles. In California however, this won’t be the case since HOV lanes are for carpools only at all times of day.

  • Anonymous

    For the greater good, they should be true express toll lanes, not HOT lanes. Express toll lanes permanently eliminate traffic congestion, while HOT lanes provide so such guarantee because they can still get congested by carpoolers.

  • “Nowhere in America has anyone converted HOV Lanes to toll lanes of any sort,”

    Im going to add Miami to the list of cities that already have.

  • And my biggest complaint is that HOT lanes completely screw over casual carpools.

    Want to get your buddies in a car to go somewhere? You only get “free” access if you pay for a transponder…it was free before!

    So now you’re sending these 5 buddies to the general lanes and letting Business Bob drive alone (for 25 cents) in the HOT lane.

  • The answer to why they don’t double track Metrolink is simple. It’s the Del Mar Avenue busway offramp. To remove that, you’ll have to shut down the freeway and the railroad tracks, and there will be two or three years of no lanes and no extra track. The alternate solution is for the UPRR Alhambra Subdivision to be double tracked and run some Metrolink trains down that. UPRR has been cool to that idea but could support it if someone built the second track for them.

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