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.
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.
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.