Balancing Cars, Cash and Congestion: Metro Silver Line BRT in ExpressLanes

ExpressLanes along the 10 Freeway, looking west from the Soto Street Bridge during morning rush hour June 2014. Photo: Joe Linton / Streetsblog L.A.
ExpressLanes along the 10 Freeway looking west from the Soto Street / Marengo Street Bridge during morning rush hour. Though the ExpressLanes (right, with red car) have encountered some congestion, on this morning in early June 2014 they were running smoothly for plenty of drivers. Photo: Joe Linton / Streetsblog L.A.

At the April 2014 board meeting, Metro’s ExpressLanes and the Metro Silver Line were the big success story.

The ExpressLanes program is a $210 million federally-funded trial project to “to develop multi-modal solutions to improve traffic flow and provide enhanced travel options on the I-110 and I-10 Freeways.” The program converted freeway carpool lanes to toll lanes, and simultaneously improved transit service, especially the Metro Silver Line freeway-running BRT, in the same freeway corridors. In late 2012, L.A.’s first ExpressLanes opened on the 110 Freeway; the full two-freeway pilot was in place in early 2013.

In April, Metro staff reported results for the first full year of ExpressLanes. Ridership on the Silver Line is up 52 percent. Drivers acquired 259,000 transponders, greatly exceeding the program’s goal of 100,000.  Possibly most importantly, Express lane revenue was way up. The forecast was for $8-10 million over the course of the 1-year pilot. Actual revenue was $19 million. This revenue is directed back into transportation improvements in the Freeway corridors.

The Metro board was unanimous in voting to make the Express Lane program permanent.

How does it work?

There are already videos and websites explaining how drivers take advantage of the new toll lanes. So the focus of this article is the transit rider experience: how did the ExpressLanes program benefit transit riders? How did ExpressLanes result in such impressive gains in Metro Silver Line bus ridership?

The Metro Silver Line is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) running on separated freeway high-occupancy lanes along the 10 and 110 Freeways – the same lanes that were converted from carpool-only to toll lanes. The Silver Line runs as an express bus on downtown streets between its two freeway stretches.

The Silver Line opened in 2009 with relatively limited service. Though it had some of the advantages of running unimpeded in carpool lanes, the frequency was inadequate. Buses ran every 30 minutes.

With the ExpressLanes project, Metro purchased 59 new buses for the Silver Line. Service frequency was increased such that buses today run every 4-6 minutes at peak commute hours. Other bus line service on these lanes was also increased; including the Foothill Transit Silver Streak.

To incentivize drivers to ride the Silver Line, Metro created a “first of its kind” Transit Rewards Program. Enrolled drivers who use their  TAP card 32 times per month receive a $5 credit toward ExpressLane toll fees. In regards to livability, this incentive seems a bit perverse. It is like giving a child candy for brushing her teeth. The roughly 90 percent of transit riders who arrive by foot, bus, or bike receive no similar incentive, though there is a low Toll Credit program that subsidizes low-income driver’s tolls.

Though non-driver transit riders don’t receive any reward-type incentives, they do receive the benefit of increased bus frequency in the corridor. According to transit experts, including Jarrett Walker, this frequency is critical for effective public transit.

How is it working?

Congestion on the 110 busway as of 8:14am June 3rd 2014. The
Smartphone screenshot showing congestion on the 110 Freeway, including ExpressLanes and El Monte Busway, as of 8:14am June 3rd 2014. The area shown is just east of downtown Los Angeles. The busway/toll-lane is the continuous red line running diagonally through the middle of the image. Immediately below the busway is the 10 Freeway.  The red indicates congested bumper-to-bumper traffic. In some stretches, especially near the 710 Freeway intersection, buses and Express Lane customers (in red) are moving slower than the rest of the freeway (in green.) Image via anonymous tip.

In May 2014, Streetsblog L.A. began to receive tips that Silver Line BRT service along the 110 Freeway was experiencing some problems. So many drivers were taking the toll lanes to the point where the mix of buses, carpools and paying drivers resulted in congestion.

In some cases, traffic in the express lanes was moving slower than the rest of the 10 Freeway. This congestion impacts all the busway users including buses, carpools, and toll-paying drivers. One reader, who requested to remain unnamed, sent SBLA this screen shot (right.)

In beginning to research this story, Streetsblog inquired to Metro to get their response. On June 6th 2014, Metro spokesperson Rick Jager wrote:

We are aware of the congestion related to the ExpressLanes from Cal State L.A. to Union Station (Westbound lanes). The one lane section of the ExpressLanes near downtown has shown marginal reduction in travel speeds over the last couple of months, but the overall average speeds to the ExpressLanes are still above 45 mph.  With the continuing increase in demand, we will adjust/increase the tolls for solo drivers in the westbound direction to help manage the increased demand we are observing.

As part of the ExpressLanes program, when speeds drop below the 45 MPH threshold, we can close the lanes to solo drivers to ease congestion in the lanes. (Carpools are still allowed into the lanes as are buses.) We’ve done that a couple of times, once last February for a short time, and again earlier this week for a short time. Again, we are aware of the congestion and will work to manage it through various tolling options.

Metro opens and closes the ExpressLanes by posting on the electronic message signs. These normally display the solo driver toll amounts. In response to congestion levels, they are dynamically modified to increase and decrease prices, and, as Metro has stated, to occasionally close the lane to solo drivers.

What does it look like on the ground?

After hearing from our tipster and from Metro, Streetsblog visited the 10 Freeway ExpressLanes three times. All on rush-hour mornings on weekdays in mid-June 2014. The good news is that there wasn’t any bumper to bumper traffic. The lanes work. Plenty of buses, carpools, and solo drivers were commuting smoothly toward downtown Los Angeles.

The only slowing observed was that transit buses would often develop a “tail” of cars lined up behind them.  It appears that buses, driving the speed limit, marginally reduce the speed of other vehicle in the ExpressLanes.

Most likely, the toll lanes are experiencing the dip in traffic congestion that generally occurs in Los Angeles during summer months. Gas prices are generally higher in the summer. Fewer students are commuting to school. Some residents go on vacation. And, lately, according to Mayor Garcetti’s video here, drivers may be playing hooky to watch World Cup soccer.

What does the future hold?

Currently, Metro’s ExpressLanes remain a win-win-win story. Transit riders get better bus service. Drivers get more capacity, and the ability to pay to bypass congestion. Metro gets revenue.  In a number of ways, though, the ExpressLanes program is a balancing act.

Encouraging more solo drivers to take advantage of excess lane capacity generates revenue. Maximizing revenue would mean getting as many drivers as possible to pay to get into the toll lanes, but allowing too many drivers into the lanes slows down everyone. Charging higher tolls can reduce congestion in the ExpressLanes, but probably results in greater congestion back in the “free” lanes.

Closing the toll lanes is sometimes necessary, but reduces revenue. Closing too often makes could make them appear unreliable, also depressing revenue. Congestion isn’t a problem right now, but could again rear its head again this fall.

ExpressLanes generate income that Metro uses to invest in mobility improvements in freeway corridors. This can include hard-to-come-by funding for operations and maintenance. These funds are then tied to improvements along the freeway corridors where they are generated. Visible and frequent transit service in these corridors may attract some drivers onto transit. Overall, though, these corridors are notoriously car-oriented places, not known for livability or walkability.

What is your experience?

Share your Silver Line experience. How is the Silver Line (and other freeway bus service) working for you? How about the ExpressLanes? Are readers taking advantage of transit or carpool incentives? So far, Streetsblog is only aware of congestion along the 10 Freeway, how about 110? In the long run, how well will it serve Los Angeles to generate new transit funding tied to freeway corridors? Does transit ever become more competitive when it is coupled with increasing capacity for cars? Your comments below.

(Interested readers can read plenty more technical details at Metro’s April 2014 preliminary report [PDF] entitled Los Angeles Congestion Reduction Demonstration (LA CRD) ExpressLanes Program.  Streetsblog summer 2014 intern Aviv Kleinman contributed to this story.)

  • Steven White

    The frustrating thing to me is the account maintenance fee. This has made the lanes cost a minimum of $12 per year, no matter if you are an infrequent user or an always-carpooler. It’s a barrier to access and should be removed. Metro (and board members) have stated it’s necessary to cover the amount they get charged to hold the account, but isn’t that just a cost of doing business? (I’d be fine if tolls were raised to cover the amount.)

    It’s especially disappointing to see that this fee was instated after having been on hold, while the revenues are nearly double what was expected.

  • Glmory

    This is why I have never got a transponder. If they just let me pay for the thing I might have, but I will rarely use it so a yearly fee is unacceptable.

  • Matt

    It will be interesting to see how the revenues are used here. I’d like to see it go to double tracking the San Bernadino Metrolink Line, which is the most heavily used Metrolink line. Maybe even the run through tracks at LAUS too. These are critical unfunded or just partially funded projects.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Notice how changes to how the freeways operate do not get community input to whether this should go forward and yet installing bike lanes on streets do.

    Imagine if the neighborhood stakeholders opinion was given weight for the decision on whether Caltrans could limit vehicles entering the freeways during peak hours by the use of traffic signals at on-ramps. The drivers would no doubt have given a resounding vote of no to that idea. By installing these traffic signals at on-ramps, Caltrans was preventing a tragedy of the commons to take place by limiting the ability of individuals to bring the movement of all drivers to a halt on the freeways by keeping the volume of vehicles on the freeways below its maximum capacity during peak hours. In other words, delays were created for some to keep the freeways moving freely.

    Or taking away freeway lanes that are jammed with vehicles during peak hours and use it for drivers who pay a toll. That would have gotten a livid outcry of “what a stupid idea!” at public meetings. “Take away lanes on crowded freeways to redistribute to a few people who would pay to use them, are you crazy, how could that possibly improve the situation?” Caltrans doesn’t particularly care what the public views are, the’re mainly concerned whether it works or not.

    Yet, drivers are allowed to bring a halt to taking away a through lane on streets in order to install bike lanes. A typical response is that they are the majority and so their views should override those of the minority. But what about the greater good such as that which takes place for the smooth operation of freeways, shouldn’t that be what is most important?

    It is difficult to install bike lanes on arterial streets in major metropolitan areas in the U.S. The main argument against this is that it will cause much greater traffic delays. But what about motor vehicles that are stored (parked) along arterial streets. Aren’t those stored vehicles preventing the movement of people along those streets? If those parked cars could be put somewhere else other than on the arterial streets, then most arterial streets in the Los Angeles area would have room for bike lanes.

    Another argument for having motor vehicle parking along arterial streets is that it is necessary to have this for businesses. Shopping malls don’t have motor vehicle parking in front of each store. Which approach tends to be more successful, the businesses with parking in front of their stores along arterial streets, or the businesses in shopping malls that require their customers to walk a greater distance from their car to each store? A major part of the success of shopping malls such as the Grove in LA or the Americana in Glendale is that they were able to make a much more irresistible shopping environment by grouping the stores into a much more compact area by moving the cars away from the mall.

  • LAifer

    Matt, I believe that the dollars generated from this are restricted to transit/bike improvements along the Silver Line and directly adjacent routes. Yes, arguably the San Bernardino line tracks along the 10, so it could be the recipient of some of these monies, but I’m doubtful that a couple million could help too much. This (sadly) probably requires some larger pot of money.

  • GlendaleLA

    I wanted to get a transponder and half a dozen times (over the last year) I would have used the lane if I had it but just dont want to commit to the “maintenance fee”. We need Metro to get rid of this fee.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Metro and Metrolink are separate agencies, and I would guess that double-tracking a rail line through heavily populated areas will cost more than just a few million dollars!

  • calwatch

    I think Joe and Aviv are falling into Metro’s PR trap when talking about the Silver Line. The Silver Line was designed to replace existing through-routed busway services, which operated at higher frequencies ten years ago than they do today. For instance on the Harbor Transitway, you had five buses an hour base and eight buses an hour during the peak. The reason the Harbor side was every 30 minutes initially was because Lines 445 and 550 continued to operate on the Transitway (hourly) until 2012 when they were cancelled. http://web.archive.org/web/20050430020752/http://www.mta.net/images/940.pdf

    The same goes for the El Monte side, where ten years ago you had 12 buses an hour from Metro (484, 490, 491) during the peak westbound, and much more Foothill Transit service than today (480, 481, 482, 486, 488, 492, 494) most of which was cancelled in favor of the Silver Line and Silver Streak due to operational issues, but which forces a transfer at each end to low frequency buses in the suburbs at transit centers which are in the middle of giant parking lots and a 10 minute walk to fast food, much less any other business. http://web.archive.org/web/20030827183630/http://www.mta.net/riding_metro/timetables/images/810.pdf

    I drive (!) on the ExpressLanes several times in a given week. The one lane segments need to be avoided because too many people are trying to use them. On the 10 I generally use the two lane segment. They work in the sense that excess capacity, especially on the 10 from the 605 to the 710, is being sold off. There wasn’t much excess capacity on the 110 to sell off because it is a 2+ carpool lane and there are a lot of plug in/electric/CNG vehicles from rich greenies in the South Bay. On the one lane segment on the 10 from the 710 to Union Station, I would suspect that the amount of capacity available is close to zero.

    As far as improvements, the toll grant board letter has come out. http://www.scribd.com/doc/233143751/Toll-Grant-Awards It seems like the usual suspects of bike, transit, and signal sync programs (not highway/road widening as they are too expensive) but some of the projects have dubious links. Does a bike share in Downtown LA have a nexus to the Expresslanes? How about Metrolink’s “enhanced ticket distribution project” (which based on Metrolink presentations leads me to believe this is mobile ticketing)? They may be worthwhile projects but some projects which have more of a connection, like West Carson bike lanes to the Harbor Gateway/Artesia Transit Center, end up getting shot down, and those are the drivers who are paying tolls on the corridor.

  • calwatch

    The toll grant board letter has been posted: http://www.scribd.com/doc/233143751/Toll-Grant-Awards A few extra buses here, some bike lanes and safety improvements there, and some signal sync and “corridor incident management systems”. They have a marginal benefit, especially during the peak hour, but are not gamechangers like new rail lines.

  • swigs

    I’ll ride the Foothill Silver Streak from DTLA to West Covina by the way of the El Monte Busway at about 4-6PM tomorrow (July 9 2014), and come back here with the trip time and congestion amount. When I rode the line 4 years ago (before I went to college), which was before the the implementation of tolls, I would have rated the line as fair. There was some passenger traffic here and there, but nothing significant to slow down below 45 mph (~20 minutes from DTLA to El Monte Station). I made my trips weekdays, 4-6PM during summer.

    I have yet to make the trip since finishing college, so I am interested how the tolls have changed the busway.

    Honestly the only difficulty I remember was segment the after the El Monte Station. From El Monte to the 605 interchange on the 10 Eastbound was painful bumper to bumper gridlock during peak hours. I still believe there’s major conjestion for all sorts of traffic to this day at that interchange. If I recall correctly, it’s about a 10-15 minute delay to escape the congestion alone

    I can look up my Tap Card for the time heading to DTLA during non-peak hours using the El Monte Busway: about 20 minutes from El Monte to DTLA (about 10AM on Monday June 23, 2014) so about 45 mph. I know the driving time from West Covina to DTLA, without tolls, without congestion is about 22-25 minutes so about 60 mph, which is fairly comparable. Take awake all the stops the bus makes and it’s closer to 50-55 mph traveled speeds.

    My current commute using local buses on surface streets usually takes 40 minutes to travel 9 miles for well run lines (13.5 mph) or 1hr 10 minutes to travel 12 miles for poorly run lines (10.3 mph).

  • Joe B

    I mostly bike and take transit, but occasionally I have to drive a carpool on the 110. Unfortunately I can’t use the carpool lane any more because Metro decided to ticket carpoolers who use the carpool lane if they don’t purchase a transponder and pay monthly fees. This shortsighted and foolish policy forces tens of thousands of carpoolers every day out of the carpool lanes and into the regular lanes, in order to make room for solo drivers in the carpool lanes.

    Many other cities manage to let carpoolers use their carpool lanes without sending them tickets. I don’t understand why Metro can’t (or won’t) figure out how to make this happen.

  • AJ

    The Silver Line runs 12 buses an hour at peak for both the El Monte and Harbor sides, which is equally/more frequent than the services you describe. Streamlining the services has substantially increased ridership — more than double what it was upon opening in 2009.

  • Benjamin Kuo

    I drive the I-10 ExpressLanes daily and just have two thoughts. I have changed my commute to when the tolls are low and I pay less. I think this is what Metro had intended by taking my car off the road during commute hours.

    Second, the terminus of the I-10 lanes at Alameda really needs serious reconfiguration. During the morning, most of the traffic flows off the lanes to the one-way Arcadia St. paralleling the 101. In the afternoon the pattern is reversed except there is no lead-in for the Eastbound lanes so there is a huge congested mess at the entrance on Alameda. Eastbound traffic from downtown must first turn left onto Alameda and turn right to get on the lanes. Sometimes when taking the Silver Line, my trip has been delayed as much as 20 minutes compared to when there were no ExpressLanes. I keep waiting for some plausible fix with the Union Station rebuild but so far it doesn’t seem to be in their purview.

    Also there tends to be a big backup on the EB10 right before the 710. There used to be a ramp that took carpool traffic off the 10 directly onto the lanes before the 710 interchange, but that ramp is now closed. EB10 traffic must merge with 710/10 traffic before having an opportunity to get on the lanes and it probably made the afternoon commute worse instead of better. Traffic noticeably frees up after the interchange when everyone has settled in on where they want to go. I imagine that by restoring the bypass, Metro could collect more tolls as well since the traffic buildup at that point would motivate a lot of drivers to switch into the toll lanes.

  • DMalcolmCarson

    The best arguments for parallel parking to me have to do with parked cars forming a barrier between moving traffic and the pedestrian realm. I’m also sympathetic to businesses wanting to give customers the option of parking directly in front, assuming there’s a spot (and with properly priced parking these always should be). Traditional “Main Street” commercial districts already have difficulties competing with malls and big box retail. To me, it’s far better to remove a lane of moving traffic than a lane of parking in order to fit bike lanes.

  • DMalcolmCarson

    I think the Demonstration Program demonstrates clearly that it should be a “no-brainer” to sell excess highway capacity to those willing to pay a premium to save time, and then use those funds to subsidize and improve the experience for those who use other modes. I’d be interested to find out about how the program could be extended to other freeways, by for example, raising the carpool requirement to three persons, and then selling the excess capacity thereby generated to those willing to pay, then using those funds to subsidize and improve other modes.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I used to feel this way, but have adjusted my views since I began using the ExpressLanes. I’ve noticed that on “standard” SoCal carpool lanes, when the adjacent unrestricted lanes jam, more often than not, the carpool lanes get jammed soon thereafter as carpoolers using the unrestricted lanes cross over into the carpool lanes in an attempt to circumvent the jam, often illegally crossing the double lines.

    Requiring a transponder has the effect of shrinking the available pool of drivers who can do this. And the transponder detectors automatically cite most of those who illegally cross the double lines, whether they have transponders or not.

    That being said, I think the transponder “deposit” is too high for a piece of hardware that only costs a fraction of that to manufacture and distribute and the maintenance fee (read: membership fee) is utterly ridiculous for a system that generates a healthy profit and just creates an additional barrier to getting the populace to adopt the system. I would argue that eliminating the monthly fee qualifies as a transit improvement that should be funded by the tolls themselves.

    However, despite its faults, of the scores of times I have used the ExpressLanes, I’ve only once had to go slower than 45 mph. So to that end, I view them as a success and a decent first step toward introducing the public to the concept of congestion pricing.

  • Joe B

    It is true that by reducing the number of people allowed to use the carpool lanes, you will reduce various undesirable behaviors associated with use of the lanes. This is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We can also reduce the number of walking-related injuries by reducing the number of people who walk to work, but nobody would seriously propose that because we rightly recognize it as counterproductive.

    If Metro’s monitoring system automatically cites drivers who illegally cross the lines whether they have a transponder or not, then there is clearly no need to require transponders in order to cite carpoolers who cross the lines.

  • calwatch

    Again, “opening” is not really fair since, on the Harbor side, although Metro service may have increased during the peak, Torrance and Gardena buses were cut substantially. Torrance 1 and 2 used to operate on the Harbor Transitway for a total of five buses an hour; now there are two. Similarly Gardena ran 2 buses an hour during middays and now all those terminate at Artesia Transit Center.

    The 2009 service had reduced frequency to the Harbor side due to duplicated service. In 2010-12 you had tremendous delays and nighttime/weekend reroutes due to Expresslanes-related construction issues. http://fixmetro.blogspot.com/ While I agree ridership has grown on the Silver Line, the doubling of ridership shown on the charts was largely as a result of canceling competing service. The amount of “new” riders generated, as shown by the rider survey (http://media.metro.net/projects_studies/expresslanes/images/public_reports_fhwa_04-2014.pdf) is significant but in the grand scheme of things, not a gamechanger.

    What would help is conversion of the Silver Line to full BRT, or as close to it as possible. This means eliminating cash fareboxes and replacing them with mobile validators; TVMs at every station, full time bus lanes (especially at the Alameda bottleneck) and signal priority Downtown, and charging the regular rate instead of a special fare.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Its going to more and more difficult to remove a moving lane on a arterial street in LA in order to install bike lanes. Up until this point, the DOT has been able to find streets with either left over space where parked car doors swing open or excess capacity on some streets where through lanes can be removed to install bike lanes without causing large delays in motor vehicle movement.

    Removing motor vehicle lanes is essentially trying to squeeze an increasing amount of motor vehicle traffic into less lanes. With Los Angeles already having the worst traffic congestion in the U.S., and the width of streets essentially built out, this strategy is going to result in a lot of dots and dashes of bike lanes that are mainly disconnected as the driver complaints increasingly resist this plan. Its much easier to make more parking somewhere else than it is to construct more motor vehicle through lanes.

    In the Netherlands its very uncommon for arterial streets to have on-street motor vehicle parking. People adjust to this, just like they do with using parking garages that are away from large shopping malls.

    Replacing the storage of motor vehicles on arterial streets in commercial areas with bike lanes enables more people powered movement through the corridor. This in turn, produces a greater possibility of residents buying from their local businesses.

  • Phantom Commuter

    “Overall, though, these corridors are notoriously car-oriented places, not known for livability or walkability.” Thanks for putting down everything east and south of DTLA. Typical Silver Lake or Westside attitude.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Unfortunately, the transponder fees help fund the monitoring system, so by removing the transponder requirement the funding for the monitors would also dry up and we’d be left with a standard, mostly unenforced carpool lane.

    What I’d like to see next is using newly available funds to address the substandard signage and lane markings on parts of the I-10 ExpressLanes and there is one particularly dangerous curve near Union Station that lacks signage and several potholes that remain unfilled.

  • Matt

    It would take a few years worth of tolls, but you are talking tens of millions then. Yes, probably not enough to do much on its own, but still could be a critical piece of funding. The Run Through Tracks at LAUS have partial funding. It is not like funding all has to come from one source.

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