Thursday, 5 July 2012

More details on LA HOT lanes project

In October 2012, Los Angeles will see the opening of the I-110 HOT lanes which I wrote about some months ago (including a map). At the time I said it would offer choice, providing an option for those willing to pay to bypass congestion, but it wouldn't be a cure-all palliative.

A new report from the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin delivers some more details, but these inform for me some of my own key conclusions that are relevant across HOT lane projects:

- HOT lanes don't deliver much revenue, especially if they need significant capital investment to make them work;

- HOT lanes wont fix congestion, but they will provide another option;

- HOT lanes can deliver a reliable trip option, which some will value some of the time;

- HOT lanes can enhance utilisation of existing HOV/carpool lanes in probably the most efficient way possible;

- A road without HOV/carpool lanes is probably best not getting HOT lanes;

- Tolling new lanes is unlikely to be viable unless existing lanes are severely congested for very long periods of the day.

The new details include more information about pricing including a low income subsidy.

The report describes the HOT lane project as follows, including a description of current road conditions:

Carpool lanes on both the 10 and the 110 freeways will be converted into toll lanes, allowing solo drivers to ride them for between 25 cents to $1.40 a mile. A single commuter would pay up to $19 to travel the 10 carpool lane the entire way under the most trafficked conditions, said Stephanie Wiggins, executive officer in charge of the Congestion Reduction Initiative for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

In early November, MTA and Caltrans will open up the carpool lanes on an 11-mile north-south stretch of the 110 Freeway in Los Angeles from Adams Boulevard near USC to the 91 Freeway in Artesia. Then, early next year, they will launch the second phase on the 10 Freeway through the San Gabriel Valley, between Alameda Street near Union Station to the 605 Freeway, according to MTA and Caltrans.

Frustrated solo drivers travel about 17 mph from 5 to 9 a.m. westbound and 4 to 7 p.m. eastbound on the 10, often watching near-empty carpool lanes in their side-view mirrors. By expanding use of the lanes, congestion on the general-purpose lanes will be less, and some who choose to pay will get to work or home faster, she said.

So the logic is getting better use out of existing capacity by pricing that spare capacity to enable there to be a reliable lane that people can pay to use. Given some will do that, this will improve the flow on the existing lanes. Nobody will be worse off.

The single lanes are to be converted to two lanes each way, by narrowing lanes overall. This means the HOT lanes will literally be new capacity and be more attractive to motorists, although safety margins on hard shoulders will be reduced.

All vehicles using the lanes will need to have a tag, even those with multiple occupants. A switch on the tag will be available to declare whether the vehicle has one, two or more occupants, determining whether or not a toll is liable. Those without a tag will be ticketed. Again, there will be an interesting issue with enforcement of vehicles that involves detecting if people lie about vehicle occupancy, although having to get a tag does make it easier to identify those without a tag and to focus on vehicles lying about occupancy with a tag. Add to that the current HOV threshold of three people per vehicles at peak times, dropping to two off peak, and confusion is easy to envisage.

The HOT lanes are part of a wider programme which is costing US$210 million in Federal funding and involved a great deal of work on lane conversions and complementary improvements to public transport. However, the tolls have got another twist, a low income subsidy.

It is described on the website as this:

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.
In essence, the effect is to subsidise the opening and maintenance of the account. Curious indeed when you consider that the toll isn’t paid if you have more than two people in the car at peak times. However, I've not seen such a subsidy/discount based on income elsewhere (and I was involved in trying to develop one for the defunct Manchester congestion pricing scheme), so it will be interesting to see how successful this is.

The tolls themselves will range from US$0.25 to US$1.40 per mile, depending on demand, with pricing altering dynamically to ensure a minimum speed of operation on the lanes of 45 mph.

Average toll (end to end) for I-10 ExpressLanes is $6 (average trip is 9 miles). Average Toll (end to end) for I-110 ExpressLanes is $4 (average trip is 5 miles).

Interestingly, if tolls are at their maximum and speeds remain below 45mph, the lanes will be closed to paying users, meaning HOVs will have continued priority.

I'd be thinking about an alternative approach, in that in the longer term, HOV thresholds should be lifted so that priority is given to those who value this precious road space. After all, a car with four occupants can better afford to pay a toll than a car with one (or two if the HOV threshold is three).

However, the politics about this make this too difficult for now.

Also interesting is the absence of any discounts or exemptions for hybrid or other “environmentally friendly” vehicles (something I discussed some months ago). This is about congestion, not emissions (and the likely impact of such a discount or exemption is not going to be to measurably increase usage or ownership of such vehicles).

A loyalty programme is also to be used, which of course is contrary to the oft-cited public policy objective of not encouraging people to drive. I haven't yet obtained details on this.

Gross revenues of around US$20 million per annum are expected from the lanes, which will help pay for their ongoing operations, with net revenues required to be reinvested in further improvements. However, when you consider the programme is costing ten times that, you can see that it isn’t exactly an enormous return. This isn’t a way for cities to make a lot of new revenue, but it is a way to get better use out of existing facilities, and it provides a new option for motorists which will deliver them value.

However, it does take an existing underutilised resource and get more out of it, it also provides utility for those willing to pay for it. Effectively a choice between publicly provided free lanes and premium lanes, so those who value time can pay for the scarcity of the road “resource”. Presenting that concept to motorists is valuable in itself.

Finally, there is one useful resource on the official website. A list of current and planned US HOT lanes.


  1. Erik Griswold6 July 2012 22:53

    Some factors to consider on these "ExpressLanes" (they are not being referred to as HOT lanes by LACMTA.):

    1) The I-10 portion was built as a Busway using, IIRC, Transit monies. It has gradually been opened up to SOVs with one big mis-step on the way, hence the 3+ during peak, which is regularly ignored based on my experience.

    2)Note that this Toll Lane will function differently from those in San Diego and San Francisco, where, I believe, HOVs can jump in without a transponder. In addition, the 91 Toll Lanes in nearby Orange County use a special entrance for the free/discounted 3+ HOVs to enter (and identify themselves). I mention all this because I think we will see confusion from a bunch of people who think they can (continue to) use these lanes without a transponder, as they have now, and can still in other parts of the same state. (All of which must offer the same "FasTrak"-based transponder, except it is LACMTA's that will be the first to offer a switch for indicating passenger numbers).

    3)There is the still valid Green and White Alternative Fuels HOV sticker that will cause some to think they can enter the lanes toll-free. Some may have even purchased a specific car to get these stickers and my will they be upset.

    4)In addition to all the capital you mention, there are the buses that were acquired to create the "Silver Line" BRT (Really Route 910):
    These ExpressLanes are supposed to contribute to their purchase and upkeep too.

    5)What I find fascinating about all of this is that despite charges against "liberals" for implementing this project now, it was a policy formulated by the Bush Administration that is only now coming into existaence in Los Angeles:

  2. Erik, thanks for that. Those are valuable comments and information. I was aware that this project was formulated under Bush Administration policy which was in favour of express lanes and tolling.