Sunday, March 3, 2013

Editorial: Is the I-110 Express Lane really serving its purpose?

On November 10, 2012, parts of the I-110 freeway HOV/Carpool lanes in Los Angeles were fully converted to Express Lane toll lanes, with a fee now charged for utilizing the lanes. To use the Express Lane, a driver must obtain a "FasTrak" transponder, the very same transponder used for the other toll roads throughout CA, and register it with the Metro Express Lane website. Tolls vary based on occupancy of the vehicle and volume of traffic at the time of travel. To distinguish between a solo driver or a carpool, the driver merely has to flip a switch on the transponder. In order to prevent solo drivers from abusing the lower cost of the carpool switch, Metro has installed cameras at various points along the I-110 as well as at Metrolink station bridges that cross over the I-110. Qualifying carpools and vanpools will be allowed to use the Express Lane free of charge. Metro has also guaranteed that the Express Lane will maintain a minimum speed of 45 mph. But is this really the best way to manage traffic flow and encourage carpooling behavior among metro LA drivers?

The reasoning behind the Express Lane seems fairly simple: to provide an alternative for people who are willing and able to pay the fee in exchange for a guaranteed minimum travel speed, while hopefully alleviating congestion in the regular use lanes. On paper, this sounds lovely, but are people actually willing to pay to use the Express Lane? According to LA Metro's own website, nearly half of the daily commuters on the I-110 were utilizing the lanes after only two weeks of operation. However, there is a caveat as, of those commuters using the Express Lane, only 40% are drivers with proper "FasTrak" transponders; the rest are toll violators. This statistic may be due to the fact that LA Metro did an absolutely miserable job of informing LA county drivers of the Express Lane conversion. In fact, I personally had no idea that this had taken place until I accidentally entered the lanes one night. As a result, police presence around the Express Lane has increased to prevent Express Lane cheaters from taking advantage of the road. LA Metro has stated that collecting tolls is not the primary purpose of the Express Lane, but has the program achieved its true purpose of clearing congestion during rush hour traffic? They claim that since the opening of the Express Lane, the 45 mph minimum travel speed guarantee has been met whereas the old HOV lanes would bog down to 20 or 30 mph during rush hour. LA Metro also claimed that the Express Lane project has allowed for better bus service, increasing bus frequency from every 30 minutes to every 10, increasing ridership by 77%.

On the surface, the project seems like a success, but since I have not been on the 110 freeway since the Los Angeles International Auto Show, I would not be able to tell you first hand if things have genuinely improved. So I turn to you, West Coast readers: have you been on the 110 freeway during rush hour since the introduction of the Express Lane? Are you an Express Lane user yourself? Has the Express Lane helped reduce congestion during rush hour? Do you think it is fair to convert HOV lanes that were once open to everyone into fee for access lanes that are only open to those willing to pay? Tell us what you think!