Martin Hill
July 3, 2012

In the latest scheme to separate residents from their hard-earned dollars, High-Occupancy-Vehicle (HOV) lanes are now being converted to High-Occupancy-Toll (HOT) lanes in Southern California.

Two freeways in Los Angeles County are about to begin charging motorists toll fees if they want to use the carpool lane. Despite being originally portrayed as including more than one person in the vehicle, carpoolers now must have a minimum of three people to qualify for “free” travel in the carpool lanes during peak commuting hours. Additionally, regardless of the amount of people in the vehicle, all autos travelling in the toll lanes must have an RFID transponder device installed in their car starting in October 2012. [“Those vehicles that are carpooling and meet the minimum occupancy requirements will not have a toll deducted from their account”]. Carpool lanes were initially implemented during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, after he signed two federal laws to “specifically encourage states to consider, and implement, if feasible, HOV lanes”.

The L.A. Metro website states “The Metro ExpressLanes Demonstration Program is primarily funded with a $210 million congestion reduction demonstration grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT)”.

The two freeways affected will be the I-10 from I-605 to Alameda St and the I-110 from Harbor Gateway Transit Center to Adams Bl.

Among the stated “Program Goals” are to “Test strategies to alleviate congestion, Fund additional transit alternatives, Maximize freeway capacity usage, Increase travel time savings, Improve trip reliability and safety & Reduce air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions”.

The toll rates will range from $0.25 to $1.40 per mile and “will vary within the range based upon demand”, promising to ensure a minimum speed of 45 mph to participants. Not willing to be accused of revenue-generation, the state adds a caviat that “The maximum toll represents a price to discourage more entry rather than generate additional revenue.”

The main page claims “The average toll for Metro ExpressLanes during the peak period (end to end) will be $6 for the I-10”, yet digging deeper into their website, another page in the labyrinth of charts admits that the “Avg Trip on I-10 is 9 miles”, which at a peak charge of $1.40 per mile would equal more than double that, $12.60. For a commuter travelling west and eastbound in the morning and evening during peak hours, that would total over $25 per day, or $126 per week.

The Overall Program Budget is $290 million. Some “customer benefits” alleged are “saves time, reduces green house gas emissions, metro carpool loyalty program”, and “new expansion bicycle lockers”. The loyalty program promises that “Carpools and vanpools are automatically entered into monthly drawings for gift cards each time they use FasTrak.” The Green Fact Sheet” portion of the website boasts that the program “promotes bicycle, pedestrian, and transit, healthier air”, and “reductions in both smog and toxic air contaminants”. It is beyond absurd to contend that commuters would switch to riding a bike to work in Southern California.

Consistent with the cashless Big-brother tracking ideology, cash customers will be penalized and charged nearly double to set up their accounts; $40 to set up the account with a credit/debit card, but $75 to set it up using cash:

“What does it cost to set up a pre-paid FasTrak account?
Credit/Debit Card Accounts: An initial prepaid toll deposit of $40 per transponder is required to open an account. The $25 transponder deposit will be waived.
Cash/Check Accounts: An initial prepaid toll deposit of $50 per transponder and a per transponder deposit of $25 will be required to open an account.”

Also, the Minimum Balance Thresholdfor Credit/Debit Cards is $10.00, but nearly triples to $25.00 for cash customers.

They claim that the program will be available to all income levels, but the only discount is that for the initial setup, not for toll charges. Also, the measly discount only specifies as applicable to residents of L.A. County, leaving out a huge number of commuters who drive into L.A. daily from the nearby counties of Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside. [“Residents of Los Angeles County with an annual household income (family of 3) at or below $37,060 will qualify for a $25 credit when they set up their account. This credit can then be applied to either the transponder deposit or pre-paid toll deposit. The monthly $3 account maintenance fee will also be waived”.]

As with all revenue schemes, the police aren’t far behind, with “a combination of visual monitoring by California Highway Patrol (CHP) vehicles” and “photo enforcement”. A myriad of punitive and excessive fees accompany the revenue officers, including a $3 Monthly Account Maintenance Fee, $25 Credit Card Declined Fee, $25 Returned Check Fee, $25 Negative Balance Fee, $25 Forced Account Closing Fee, and $25 Failed to Return Transponder in Good Condition Fee.

The Metro FAQ page, in response to the question Aren’t tolls just another tax? replies

“No. These are optional tolls, and the choice is yours. Unlike a tax that everyone pays, only the drivers that do not meet the minimum occupancy requirements who choose to use a toll facility will be charged a fee. Solo drivers have the option to use the existing general purpose lanes toll-free, or pay to use the toll facility if better mobility and more reliable trip times are desired”.

Another page points out that “Congestion pricing” provides an opportunity to sell some of the additional capacity on the ExpressLanes to those willing to pay a toll and maximizes efficiency of the entire freeway.” Nine states already have HOT lanes, and the metro site lists several more “U.S. locations where HOT Lanes are in development”, including Austin TX, Portland OR, Fort Lauderdale, FL and Santa Cruz CA.

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