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San Diego Drivers Willing to Pay to Pick Up Speed in Carpool Lanes

Project along eight-mile stretch of Interstate 15 attracts 20,000 regular customers and soon will be expanded to 20 miles.

October 21, 2002|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

On a small section of freeway in San Diego County, motorists with a few extra dollars to spare can buy their way past gridlock and into a set of fast-moving freeway lanes.

It is a privilege that rankles some who refer to the lanes as "Lexus lanes" and complain that they are just another example -- like valet parking and gated communities -- of rich folks buying their way around the hassles of living in crowded urban communities.

Critics worry that, if expanded, the San Diego County freeway program would create a two-tiered highway class structure: well-to-do drivers speeding to work on free-flowing lanes while everyone else idles in maddening congestion.

"It discriminates against people who are of low economic means," said Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, a longtime member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The freeway program is part of an experiment that many transportation experts see as a possible solution to Southern California's worsening traffic problems.

On Interstate 15, just outside San Diego, an eight-mile stretch of carpool lanes has been converted to High Occupancy Toll lanes. The lanes are open to solo drivers willing to pay tolls of 50 cents to $4 to cruise past the daily bumper-to-bumper congestion. Carpools still use the lanes free of charge.

The lanes have been so popular -- attracting at least 20,000 regular toll-paying motorists -- that the three-year pilot project soon will be permanently expanded to a 20-mile stretch. The tolls are generating more than $1 million a year to fund a new bus line.

San Diego County officials are considering similar programs on two other freeways near downtown San Diego. "It's been an incredibly popular program," said Kim Kawada, a regional planner for the San Diego Assn. of Governments.

High Occupancy Toll lanes are an example of a traffic management tool known as "value pricing," which relies on the power of the free market to manage traffic flow. Under value pricing, freeway tolls increase during peak commute times to discourage motorists from driving during those congested periods.

In Los Angeles County, home of the worst traffic congestion in the nation, the idea of value pricing has failed to gain much traction. "There is a concern that people are already paying for the freeways through their gas taxes, and why should they have to pay again?" said Lancaster Mayor Frank Roberts, who sits on the MTA board.

Nevertheless, academics and transportation experts throughout the country say the idea is gaining momentum, thanks to the success of the San Diego County freeway project.

"The research community sees this as a great opportunity to fix some serious traffic problems," said Brian Taylor, director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies.

Time, Stress Are Factors

Motorists who use the High Occupancy Toll lanes on Interstate 15 say the lanes make their drives more predictable and less stressful.

"It's just freed me up to leave whenever I want," said Thomas Baden, a senior executive at a guitar manufacturer who commutes from El Cajon to Escondido every day. He said the $40 a month he pays for tolls is well spent because he has eliminated much of his commuting stress and gets more time with his family. "People need to put a perspective on what their time is worth," he said.

Larry Aker, a construction company executive whose work sends him throughout the San Diego region, said he uses the lanes to ensure that he gets to his meetings on time. "I do it more for an added certainty factor," he said.

Leonard "Bud" Gminski, general manager of a media company who has used the lanes since the program started in 1996, rejects the suggestion that it discriminates against the poor. He noted that drivers can keep toll costs low by using the lanes only when absolutely necessary.

"I'm far from rich," he said. "But if you have to pick up your kid at school at a certain time, $3 or $4 is not too much to spend. It's an expense that anyone who is working can afford."

Gminski estimates that the lanes halve his regular 40-minute commute from his home in the Poway area to downtown San Diego. He suggests that the program be expanded to let toll payers zip past the ramp meters that regulate traffic flow entering the freeway.

Some cities with notoriously bad traffic, including Houston and New York, already operate similar programs. Denver, San Francisco and Seattle are studying the idea.

"There is a lot of interest, particularly with the success of the San Diego project," said Lee Munnich, a senior fellow with the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

San Diego County's High Occupancy Toll lanes were the brainchild of Jan Goldsmith, a former assemblyman and mayor of Poway.

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