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Doing the math on 'Lexus lanes'

Congestion pricing pencils out for those who want to travel faster. And it takes some of the burden of funding transit off the poor.

November 17, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • Traveling on the Express Lanes of the 110 Freeway between the 91 Freeway and Adams Boulevard will cost $15.40 at peak times.
Traveling on the Express Lanes of the 110 Freeway between the 91 Freeway… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Some people are pretty good at being stuck in traffic. They gab on the phone, listen to music, chalk up the inconvenience as inevitable.

Not I.

Generally speaking, I sweat, curse and think miserable thoughts. And I'm on the road a lot, which has been known to sour my disposition.

Once, I hired a day laborer to travel with me so I could use the carpool lanes and ease my burden. I still think there ought to be day laborer stations along the highway, because everybody wins, but for some reason the idea hasn't caught on.

Last week, I went with a different option. I bought a FasTrak transponder, which means I can now use the 110 Freeway Express Lanes over an 11-mile stretch between Adams Boulevard and the 91 Freeway. Early next year, the 14-mile stretch of the 10 Freeway, between downtown and the 605, will also have Express Lanes in the one-year trial program.

The transponder, which you stick on your windshield, costs $40, but there are discounts for low-income drivers and at the Auto Club and Costco. Once you register your device on the Metro website, you're good for $40 worth of tolls, and after that, sensors will detect your use of Express Lanes and bill your credit card.

So on Wednesday afternoon, headed south on the 110 Freeway, traffic was backing up just beyond downtown. As I approached Adams with my new transponder, an overhead sign listed a price of $2.70 to get to the 105, and $3.80 to the 91.

How much time would I save for almost $4?

There was no way to know. The prices, by the way, go up in heavier traffic, to as high as $15.40 for 11 miles.

I'm out at that price. If $15.40 isn't too rich for your blood, you and Mitt Romney can race each other.

For $3.80, though, I was in, and my investment began paying off almost immediately. I was zipping along at 60 mph while cars in the regular lanes were moving at about half that speed.

But around Century Boulevard, I began to feel like I'd been suckered. I was still moving at a good clip, but so were drivers who weren't paying $3.80. It took me a total of 11 minutes to go from Adams to the 91, and I'm guessing I only saved a couple of minutes by using the Express Lanes.

So here's a whole new set of choices with which to burden yourself, Angelenos.

Do you toll, or do you roll with the rest of the crowd?

What is a minute of your time worth?

And is this system fair, or does it make for yet another class distinction in an already-stratified region?

I can't tell you what your time is worth. But I can tell you I'm a big supporter of congestion pricing and toll lanes, even though they're sometimes derisively referred to as "Lexus lanes."

Why?

We can't add much more roadway, but as the population grows, we'd be wise to find ways to more efficiently use what we've got while adding transit options and encouraging more carpooling. And that's the whole point of toll lanes.

In theory, everyone benefits. The driver who chooses to pay a premium goes faster, but the driver who doesn't pay goes a little faster, too, for no extra charge. That's because as single-occupant vehicles and carpoolers are lured out of regular lanes and into the toll lanes, the volume is lowered in the regular lanes.

Traffic has slowed a bit on the 110 since the Express Lanes opened a little over a week ago as people try to puzzle out what the signs mean, according to project manager Stephanie Wiggins. But once people get used to the new system, average speeds in the regular lanes should increase between 2 and 10 miles an hour, depending on various traffic conditions. That's what has happened in other parts of the country where this system is in operation.

And money generated from the toll lanes will be plowed into transit improvements along the two highway corridors. Already, 59 new buses have been purchased for those corridors with money from a $210-million federal grant, which will also pay for a new El Monte bus station and transit center improvements.

The federal gas tax, set at 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn't been increased since 1993, said Martin Wachs, a transportation expert at Rand, and cars manufactured since then get much better mileage. That has meant less revenue for highway construction and maintenance. Tolls are a way to generate new funds for transportation improvements while at the same time creating more options for travelers.

As for the Lexus lane charge, UCLA transportation guru Brian Taylor argued that toll lanes aren't a bad deal for low-income people. When sales tax increases are used to pay for transportation projects — as with Measure R in Los Angeles County — everybody pays and the burden is greatest on the poor, because they lose a bigger percentage of their income. But if tolls are used to finance a project, such as the 91 Freeway toll lanes, it's the Lexus drivers who carry the load.

By the middle of last week, 44,000 transponders had been registered, and about 1,200 vehicles per hour were using the new Express Lanes, exceeding Metro's expectations.

Wednesday afternoon, on my way back from Torrance, a highway sign estimated a 20-minute drive to downtown from the 91. The Express Lane sign listed a price of $3.35 for that drive. I jumped into the toll lane and made it to Adams in 11 minutes, meaning I had saved about nine minutes.

That was the good news.

And the bad?

Express Lanes aren't everywhere (they stop at Adams heading north), and traffic will always be a great equalizer in Los Angeles.

It took me 20 minutes to go from Adams to the Staples Center, a distance of maybe a mile.

Did I mention that walking is sometimes the fastest option?

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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