On November 10, the I-110 ExpressLanes, a type of “congestion pricing” or HOT Lane System, will open on the I-110 from just South of the 91 Freeway going north all the way to just South of the I-10. Early next year, the similar lanes will open on the I-10. In both cases, single-occupancy vehicles will be allowed into what are currently high occupancy or low-emission vehicle lanes (HOV Lanes) for a small cost per mile which will vary pending congestion conditions. If there is too much congestion in the ExpressLane, then it will be closed to all but the carpoolers.
“Everywhere it’s been tried, congestion has gone down,” Mayor Villaraigosa told Streetsblog in our July interview when discussing Metro’s ExpressLanes plan. The Mayor also pointed to the over $200 million Metro received to be a test case for HOV to HOT lane conversion that allowed Metro to refurbish the El Monte transit center, increase bus access along the corridor, purchase 100 new vans for its van pool program, and a laundry list of other improvements .
Yet, many in the transit community fear the coming ExpressLanes, worrying that a “less than smooth” implementation could set the idea of road pricing back a generation in L.A. County.
Nicholas Ventrone, with The Transit Coalition, is one of those that is worried. He warns that by requiring anyone that uses the ExpressLanes, even those doing so “for free” because of a carpool, to have a transponder; Metro is creating an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and undermining support for the project.
“HOT Lanes certainly need to be well enforced to keep violations at a minimum; however creating a ‘Nanny Lane’ system discourages ridesharing,” argues Ventrone. “Mandating carpools to register for a FasTrak account creates a bureaucratic transportation system and expands unnecessary government control over the public.”
FasTrak is the company that will collect tolls for Metro through the transponder system.
In addition to requiring a transponder for carpools to enter the lane, there is a monthly charge to have a transponder unless you ride in the ExpressLanes four times per month. Others, including the Sierra Club, worry that the requirement will kill casual carpooling. A faster trip is a solid reason to choose a carpool, but there are few people who will purchase a transponder for a family trip to Disney Land or for the Dodgers vs Angels annual “Freeway Series.”
“Public officials need to encourage ride-sharing in the HOT lanes, not make it harder,” he explains. “Free access to a dedicated lane on the freeway is advertised as an incentive to freely carpool. Registration requirements hamper that effort.”
Ventrone, a supporter of congestion pricing, studied how congestion pricing is working in other cities around the country and discovered a correlation between transponder requirements and public support. He has compiled a list of studies on congestion pricing for The Transit Coalition’s “We Want Toll Lanes Done Right ” webpage.
Last November, InsiderAdvantage and WSB-TV  commissioned a poll on attitudes towards congestion pricing programs in the greater Atlanta region. Nearly half of the region’s commuters believe that the I-85 Express Lanes has made traffic worse  for the corridor. To enter an Atlanta Express Lane, one must both have a transponder in their vehicle and register their trip ahead of time with information that includes the number of people in the car. The I-85 is the least popular congestion priced road in the country, and it happens to have occurred in the area with the strictest transponder requirements.
Other studies point to a decrease in carpooling directly associated with an HOV to HOT conversion. A 2011 study by the University of California at Berkeley showed a marked decrease in carpooling when toll lanes were installed on the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge. However, there was a reported 15% increase in transit usage. With the increase in buses and other transit infrastructure, Metro could be well-prepared to capture those willing to give transit commutes a second look.
In the end, the plan is for more and more L.A. County highways to have a congestion free, toll lane, option. “The goal is to one day have congestion pricing on all freeways. Studies show that it reduces congestion…but it’s a hard sell to people,” Villaraigosa told us in July.
The question is, with the transponder requirement, is Metro making the “hard sell” even harder.