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Toll plan might leave many in jam

Adding paying drivers to carpool lanes would worsen traffic unless minimum occupancy was raised to three per vehicle, experts say.

July 07, 2007|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

If L.A. moves forward with plans to allow toll-paying drivers into carpool lanes, the biggest loser may be the vast majority of drivers who don't -- or cannot afford to -- use them.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is drawing up plans that, by 2010, would implement "congestion pricing" in Los Angeles County -- allowing, for example, solo motorists to pay to use less-congested lanes.

But transit experts generally agree that adding toll drivers to carpool lanes would leave them in gridlock unless officials allowed only vehicles with three or more occupants to use the lanes free during peak hours (two occupants is the current standard for the vast majority of carpool lanes).

A study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments found that toughening the carpool requirement to three per car during rush hour would clear up the lanes but further jam the rest of the freeway.

That would mean that drivers who pay a toll or meet the three-plus requirement would roll through clearer traffic. But motorists in the other lanes -- including those no longer eligible for the carpool lanes -- could face even longer delays, said Hasan Ikhrata, SCAG's director of planning and policy.

The 2004 study found that converting a two-plus carpool lane into a three-plus lane would add 1.7 million commute hours a day for Southern California drivers because of increased congestion in the regular freeway lanes.

The MTA's effort to develop congestion pricing has won praise from some who see it as a novel way to improve traffic flow as well as criticism from those who consider it "Lexus Lanes" for the rich.

But MTA board member David Fleming said the SCAG study did not consider the impact of allowing toll-paying drivers in the lanes.

If the general freeway lanes become more congested because carpool requirements are toughened, Fleming said, commuters can always opt to pay a toll to access the faster lanes. That, he said, could free up regular traffic lanes.

"It's sort of like flying first-class on airlines -- it costs more money, but those who can afford it, let them pay," he said. "That means by letting people ride first-class, the people riding economy pay a lot less" for future freeway widening projects.

Fleming, who is also chairman of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce board, added that toll revenue could be used to expand freeways.

The MTA is just beginning to study the possibility of congestion pricing, in which motorists pay a toll to drive on less-congested roads.

The move comes after the agency was criticized for not having a congestion pricing program in the works and failing to receive grants from a federal program designed to boost such projects.

No specific routes have been named. But in the past, officials have talked about adding congestion-priced toll lanes along the 10 Freeway east of downtown Los Angeles and, to the south, the 110 and 105 freeways.

Converting carpool lanes into so-called high-occupancy toll lanes would have to win approval from the Federal Highway Administration.

In 2005, Congress passed legislation that made it easier for transportation officials to seek such conversions, said Nancy Singer, a spokeswoman for the highway agency.

There are high-occupancy toll lanes on freeways in San Diego, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City and Houston, as well as an express toll lane on the 91 Freeway in Orange County, according to the agency.

Federal officials have made "HOT lanes" a priority, saying they want to give motorists more options to avoid congestion.

"Essentially, what you're doing is you're using excess capacity that's not being used and allowing more options for motorists to use those lanes as a solo driver if they choose to pay," Singer said. "It gives them an option to get where they want to get sooner. And at the same time, it takes those vehicles off the regular lanes. So everyone benefits."

But Southern California is significantly different from other parts of the county, because the region's carpool lanes are already crowded. In fact, the highway agency recently declared that many California carpool lanes are so congested they fail to meet federal standards.

That's why, congestion pricing advocates say, it's only a matter of time before carpool lane requirements need to be toughened from two-plus to three-plus during rush hour. That will then free up enough space to sell to solo motorists, they say.

"If the carpool lanes are going the same speed as regular lanes, there is no incentive to get into a bus," said Michael Cano, transportation deputy to MTA board member and L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

Cano pointed to slow speeds on the El Monte Busway on the 10. Bus officials have urged officials to increase the minimum-occupancy requirement, which is three-plus during peak hours and two-plus the rest of the time.

Cano acknowledged that increasing the minimum-occupancy requirement could push out some two-person carpools.

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