Success! Solo drivers in Los Angeles who can afford to pay extra for access to carpool lanes have seen their speeds increase 10 mph, while those less fortunate are going between 3.6 and 8 mph slower.
Utilizing $210 million in grant money from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Los Angeles County introduced “congestion pricing” to the city’s 110 Harbor Freeway, just south of downtown, in the form of toll lanes that let drivers without passengers—who buy transponders and pay by the mile—speed along in lanes once designated for carpoolers and motorcyclists.
A transponder costs $40, plus a $3 monthly maintenance fee. The sliding fee for using the lanes is 25 cents to $1.40 per mile, depending on congestion. County residents (family of 3) with an annual household income at or below $37,060 qualify for a $25 credit when they set up their account.
The 11 miles of High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes were activated last November and a second 14-mile stretch on the I-10 Freeway heading east from downtown opened February 23. The Los Angeles Times reported that the Harbor Freeway HOT lanes have already brought in $3.2 million.
“Because we can’t build our way out of congestion, we have to be smart about the capacity we add and maximize the system we already have in place,” Caltrans supervisor Marco Ruano said in a press release touting the system. Supporters say HOT takes advantage of the under-utilized lanes, increases speeds for everyone, spurs the use of mass transit and raises the consciousness of all about the costs of driving.
Critics of this form of traffic control, which can also include dynamic pricing that shifts the cost per mile depending on how congested the roads are, contend that these “Lexus lanes” are mostly just a perk for wealthier people. They decry the trend toward substituting user fees for tax-based government solutions to community issues, and argue that problems won’t be addressed if we allow the more privileged members of society to dodge them.
So far, around 40% of the HOT lane users are solo drivers, according to a study from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro).
Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez suggested that a simpler solution might be one that he utilized before the HOT lanes were turned on: just hire a day laborer to sit in the car with you, allowing access to carpool lanes. That would be a win-win for the driver and the unemployed, and less fraught with peril than the scam by a Seattle driver who tried to sneak by with a blowup doll in the passenger seat.