Los Angeles' FasTrak freeway lanes have become less so -- and they might get pricier.
Toll lanes on the 110 Freeway have slowed so much that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is closing them to solo drivers for up to 30 minutes during morning rush hour. That recent tweak is part of Metro's rejiggering of a few variables to speed things up. If closing the lanes down to solo drivers, who make up one third of toll lane cars, doesn't work, the agency will consider increasing the per-mile toll limit, probably in the fall, according to Metro spokesman Rick Jager.
"They want an opportunity to tweak the system and see if they can't rectify it," Jager said.
Toll prices currently vary from $.25 to $1.40 per mile, depending on the heaviness of traffic. Commuters pay an average of $9.01 to travel the 11 miles of toll lanes on the 110 Freeway, and $7.30 to drive the 14 miles of toll lanes on the 10 Freeway, according to Metro.
Toll lanes were meant to ease congestion for all drivers, but they haven't always done that. On the 10 Freeway, average rush hour traffic in the free lanes slowed nearly 10 miles an hour during a one-year period ending in September.
"We have a huge amount of demand, and we are struggling to figure out how to manage that demand," said Genevieve Guiliano, a transportation policy expert at USC. "There are a lot of wrinkles and challenges but the number of people being serviced in the corridor is more than before there were toll lanes."
More than 350,000 transponders had been sold, with a total of more than $81.5 million in revenue for transponders and tolls, according to Metro figures.
UCLA urban planning professor Martin Wachs is among those who believe worsening traffic is the result of an improving economy. "As we dig our way out of the recession and business is picking up around the region, congestion is increasing, reflecting improved employment and sales," he said.
Price increases are not likely to sit well with anyone who decries the notion of paying for a freeway lane. Like them or not, L.A. motorists might be seeing more toll lanes. Metro is currently studying the feasibility of lengthening the lanes on the 110, which currently stretch only as far south as the 105 Freeway, almost five miles south to the junction with the 405 Freeway. The study is also examining the creation of toll lanes on the 105 Freeway between the 110 and 605 freeways, a distance of around 12 miles. Metro will complete a report on these possibilities this summer.
Metro has not announced any intention to create toll lanes on the 405 Freeway, but there is speculation.
Higher prices could also reignite criticism that so-called "Lexus lanes" are out of reach for poor commuters. L.A.'s toll lanes are the first in the nation, according to Metro, to grant a one-time $25 credit and waive the monthly maintenance fee for city residents who household income is equal or lower than the federal poverty level. More than 5,000 low-income drivers have registered for the credits.
Toll lane revenue must go toward running the ExpressLanes program and improving transit in the 110 and 10 freeway corridors. So far, Metro has bought 60 new buses, made improvements to the Harbor Gateway Transit Center and increased security and lighting on public transit, according to Jager.
Sensors monitor traffic speed, flow, and volume, letting transit officials quickly obtain data on changes made to the system such as lane closures or price increases.
The lanes began with a $210 million federal grant to ease traffic, with revenues used to maintain the lanes and improve transit in the corridors where they exist. The pilot phase of the program expired in February 2014; Metro then voted to make the toll lanes permanent. The lanes have been credited with pushing more L.A. commuters onto public transit.