Metro Responds to FastTrack Criticism: Removing Monthly Fee Opens Budget Hole, Encourages People Outside L.A. County to Purchase, Not Use, Transponders

Image:##http://metro.net/expresslanes##Metro.net##

Ever since Metro first announced the details of its ExpressLanes program, converting HOV lanes to variable toll lanes on parts of the I-10 and I-110 debate has been fierce. In legacy media outlets, the debate has been over whether or not it is right or ethical for government to charge drivers for access to the lanes. In outlets devoted to transportation coverage, the debate has focused on a $3 monthly fee that ExpressLane transponder holders will incur if they drive in these lanes less than four times a month.

Picking up the argument that the fee “kills” casual carpooling, L.A. County Supervisor and Metro Board Member Zev Yaroslavsky. At the last meeting of the Metro Board of Directors, Yaroslavsky moved that staff prepare a motion and report on removing the fee. For the record, the fee will not go into effect until the I-10 Express Lanes open later this year under current plans.

Yesterday, The Source highlighted a memo written by Metro staff explaining the $3 charge. After first explaining that this fee is consistent with other toll agencies in the state, the staff report offers two major reasons for the fee: it offsets costs associated with maintaining the accounts and it prevents toll lane users from using Metro’s “free fee accounts” to get transponders which are only used in other regions.

To make sense of Metro’s arguments outlined below, one must first understand that when a driver purchases a FastTrack transponder and account, they’re not giving money to Metro. Metro receives money every time a toll is charged, or a user fee.

So what fees are associated with FastTrack accounts? Metro breaks it down.

For a full copy of the proposal, visit ##http://thesource.metro.net/2013/01/16/heres-the-metro-staff-report-explaining-the-fastrak-account-maintenance-fee-for-the-expresslanes/##The Source##

At first glance, it appears that the account fees are being used to offset the cost of having a customer service center. On second glance, the numbers don’t make a lot of sense.

Metro basically takes the cost of the service center and divides it by the number of transponders. There is no explanation of what happens when more people purchase transponders. For example, if the number rises to 100,000 transponders does the cost of hosting the service center rise proportionately? It also seems to assume that every user won’t be using the transponder four times to avoid the fee. The numbers so nicely fit into a $3 fee that it appears that staff started with a $3 fee and worked backwards to justify it.

Regardless of the shaky math, any profit from the ExpressLanes will go back into supporting transportation options in communities along the I-10 and I-110 corridors where the projects are being completed. Removing the user fees reduces the profit made, and thus reduces the investments that can be made in local transit projects.

For a full copy of the proposal, visit ##http://thesource.metro.net/2013/01/16/heres-the-metro-staff-report-explaining-the-fastrak-account-maintenance-fee-for-the-expresslanes/##The Source##

The second justification is that by not having a fee, Metro would basically be subsidizing other toll road projects. With inactive or underused user fees in place for toll road projects in San Diego and Orange Counties, irregular users of these systems could purchase through LACMTA passing on the cost of maintaining the account without there being any reduction in local congestion or money generated for supporting local transit.

In the end, staff presented four reccomendations for the Board.

1) Use existing Prop. C funds to close any funding gap left by ending the inactive or underutilized user fee. This could delay other highway projects.

2) Increase the toll rate to close any funding gap left by ending the inactive or underutilized user fee. This could reduce the number of people using the lanes. Besides, the whole point of congestion pricing is to let the drivers set the toll rate by “voting with their pedals.”

3) Reduce, but not end the fee. This would decrease the amount of money coming in, but could reduce the controversy

4) Do nothing for 120 days while the impact of the fee and other factors impacts how people use the lanes.

Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s office did not respond to a request to comment on their view of the staff report. Streetsblog will continue to cover the issue as it advances.

  • Alex T

    “For example, if the number rises to 100,000 transponders does the cost of hosting the service center rise proportionately?”

    It seems pretty clear to me.  They get charged $206,000 per 76,000 transponders, per month.  I don’t take that to mean that there are exactly 76,000 transponders out there.  I take that to mean that the contract they worked out with the customer service provider requires that Metro pay the contractor $206K per 76K transponders.  If there are more transponders, the cost goes up.  Whether Metro pays a prorated rate or pays $206K for each 76K or fraction thereof, I don’t know.

  • Aaron

    I’ll leave it to Metro to set what policy they believe is best. But I’m exactly the type of casual carpooler as referenced by Yaroslavsky who won’t be purchasing a transponder because of the monthly fee, as a several other members of my family. The express lanes aren’t on my usual commute (which is typically by bike or transit, by the way), so there’s no way I’d usually hit the 4 trips/month figure, but I do occasionally find myself driving routes where the express lanes are being put in. Typically, I’ll carpool, and in the past I’ve been glad to use the carpool lanes while doing so. I’d gladly purchase a transponder for the privilege of continuing to do so, but I won’t be signing up for anything with a monthly fee.

  • Juan Matute

    The solution seems to be charge an extra $20 for the transponder and start a 1-900 number for customer service.  

    That eliminates the variable cost of the transponder.

  • Anonymous

    Incentivizing driving by waiving the fee if you drive in the lanes at least 4 times per month was a terrible idea, so clearly something should be done. Either eliminate the incentive by charging the $3 to all users, or eliminate it by making it free for all users. If you make it free for everyone, it will encourage more people to use the lanes, driving up the toll, and that will pay for the customer service costs.

  • No fee works just fine on the east coast. Look at ezpass. Some states charge you, some states dont….you can simply go to the website of the agency that best fits your plan (I got my ezpass from NJ, even though the car is based in Mass). How do those agencies  deal with it? They offer discounts for their states pass. IE: If you want a discount on the MA toll, you need an MA ezpass which has a fee.

    Also, the justification here is terrible. Theyre basically saying “you need to pay us money to cover the cost of you paying us money”. Uhuh. Imagine if you want to a toll booth (the manned kind) and on top of a $1 toll there was a .75 cent “toll collecting fee”. Makes no sense. The toll needs to cover the cost of collection.

    The current policy basically says “DRIVE MORE!!!”

  • calwatch

    Yaroslavsky is absolutely right – we should at least waive fees for the first six months after implementation of the I-10 lanes, to gather data about how much of a free rider problem there is. If it is significant, then impose the fee, much like how San Diego did on the I-15 lanes. But there is likely to be more hassle for people who open and close accounts in order to avoid the fee, for example college students who take jobs elsewhere during the summer, or snowbirds. Is it cost effective for someone to close the account in May or June only to reopen it again in September or October? I don’t think so.

  • Erik Griswold

    Sorry to be anal about spelling, but it is “FasTrak”.  No “C”:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FasTrak

  • Erik Griswold

    Or how about a Fifth option, which is to adopt the practice used in the rest of the State of California where *PUBLICLY*-built HOV lanes have been opened to toll-paying solo drivers, which is called the “Mylar Bag” option.

    As I detailed in my comment to The Source (which actually got approved, restoring my faith in Steve Hymon!)…:

    http://thesource.metro.net/2013/01/16/heres-the-metro-staff-report-explaining-the-fastrak-account-maintenance-fee-for-the-expresslanes/comment-page-2/#comment-38187

    …*all* the other “ExpressLane” facilities in the state, (except the ones in the median of SR91 in Orange County which are a special case since they were built by private funds) allow for “carpoolers” to use the lanes without having a transponder, if they have the required number of persons in their vehicle.

    But if everyone using the I-110 & I-10 ExpressLanes has a transponder, especially the actual LA Metro ones that have the “1-2-3+” switch, the project will gather incredibly valuable data about the use of these lanes between now and the end of the demonstration project in about a year.

    What Metro and the Metro board needs to decide is if it is worth collecting all this data with mandatory transponders in exchange for all this bad press.  Or can the cameras and license plate readers be depended on to gather usage data and count vehicle occupancy?

  • Kenny Easwaran

     This is exactly my situation – we basically just use the 110 to get to LAX, and I commute by bike and bus while my partner drives to Pasadena.  I decided to get the transponder in order to support the Express Lanes project, but if there are enough months where we get hit by the $3 fee (most likely every single month, unless we go to LAX together twice in the month), then we’ll probably cancel it.

  • Joe B

    It seems to me like the Metro board is more interested in playing with gadgetry (switchable transponders, TAP, locking gates) than it is in finding ways for people to efficiently get around. This is unacceptable. What do we have to do to get some fresh blood onto the Metro board? 

  • Anonymous

    Metro is actively working against the interests of Californians

  • T Chen

    I will not pay a monthly fee for something I don’t use enough, while others don’t have to pay. Infrequent commuters should be rewarded, not penalized. Metro acts as if people are doing something wrong by not driving enough. Instead, we have already reduced traffic congestion by living near our jobs/school or being retired. Metro’s stated goal of improving air quality is bogus. By kicking electric vehicles out of the hov lanes, they revealed their true intent: pick everyone’s pocket!

  • This entire Fastrack,Metro BS is criminal misuse of taxpayer funds. Those lanes were built with taxpayer funds and belong to the taxpayers. The privatization and profiting from the public commons is criminal and unconstitutional. You, the public, are being robbed yet again. This time it is literally highway robbery…

  • Don

    Sign my petition against the Fastrack on the White House We the People site.

  • The lanes aren’t being privatized; all of the toll revenue goes into public coffers and gets reinvested in the same corridor. Fastrak just provides the equipment.

  • Anonymous

    They’re in effect charging you to carpool by requiring you to have a transponder to carpool.

  • Anonymous

    ANY fee no matter how small completely kills casual car pooling. The problem is easy to see just look un the 110 freeway especially on weekends and see just how many cars with 2,3 or more peole are stuck in the non-express lanes. Even if the toll is zero you have to sign up a month in advance. You can’t just that day say “Let’s carpool”

    It works only for people who drive the sae freeway every day. Like I said, just look how many 2 passenger cars are stck in traffic.

    A solution: simply don’t require these people to use transponders. If you have enough people in the car you shou d be able to drive in the “car pool lane” with no transponder. How to enforce it? The same why you enforce that drivers don’t cheat and leave there transponder set to “3” when you have one person in the car.

  • Anonymous

    Worse then that. It requires you to plan at least a month in advance to car pool. By definition, this kills casual carpooling.

  • Anonymous

    This needs to be an elected office. I’d vote the guys out in a second but we can’t

  • Anonymous

    If they can inforce the use of transponders using automated cameras, why bother using transponders, let the camera read the license plates and deduct the toll from the car’s account. Obviously the automated cameras do work.

    The bottom line is the freeways are MORE connected with this system because so few people can use it

  • Frauminator

    totally agree. I am not getting a transponder or account because I use the freeway only once a week during the summer, sometimes just every other week. If I drive less than 4 x a month I pay $3. I always carpool, because I’m a homeschooling parent having always my two kids in the car sometimes a friend or two. This new regulation is NOT carpool friendly at all.

  • calwatch
  • Tax Payers Against Fast Track

    After fastrack makes a fast profit for selling the equipment and completing the infrastructure change.

  • Guest

    .

  • angrycitizen

    i agree with you, this is criminal thievery!!! this is another form of discrimination. What about the people who can not afford to have another bill on their hands that have to commute to work. this is ludicrous at best.

  • Jeremiah

    How are they charging and fining people to drive down a lane that was built by the tax payers dollars, it’s unconstitutional..

  • Yes, this is how the lanes in San Diego County work (called “open tolling”) and last I checked, they don’t have a problem with people cheating the carpool allowance. I can’t understand why 21st Century HOT lanes continue to be so behind the times like Metro’s and the 91 Express Lanes are.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

As ExpressLanes Flourish, Zev Moves to End Transponder Fees

|
(Note: According to The Source, I misunderstood the wording of the motion. An earlier version of this article mentioned that staff opposed extending the transponder fee. Apparently they wish to see it extended through the end of the ExpressLanes pilot in February 2014) Metro’s two staff reports to the Board of Directors on the progress […]

Congestion Pricing Opens on the I-10, Hysteria on Hold

|
This weekend, Express Lanes opened on 14 miles of the I-10 between Alameda Street in downtown Los Angeles and the 605 freeway. The lanes converted existing HOV lanes to HOV/HOT lanes during non-peak hours. This means solo-car commuters can buy their way into the carpool lane if they have a FastTrack transponder. Carpoolers will also need […]

Metro ExpressLanes and Carpooling: The Facts, the Benefits and More

|
(Those of you that follow Streetsblog on Twitter may have noticed the ExpressLanes team at Metro were less than thrilled with our article on the concerns some have with the transponder requirement to access ExpressLanes. We invited them to write a response and Stephanie Wiggins, Executive Officer for the Congestion Reduction Demonstration Initiative, responded. – D) […]