Monday, April 29, 2013

Are free FasTrak accounts good fiscal policy in LA?

A sign announcing express lanes.Metro's actions are certainly questionable from both a fiscal and enforcement standpoint.

Now through October 25, 2013, Los Angeles County residents who register for a FasTrak account through LA Metro will have their $3 monthly account maintenance fee waived. Infrequent users of the Metro ExpressLanes which included carpoolers complained of the fee which has been a cause of Metro's decision to cut out the fee for a six month period. Now that infrequent users of the HOT lanes within LA County can benefit with a FasTrak account without the monthly maintenance fee, could we potentially see more carpoolers returning to the high occupancy lanes as Metro intended? We might see an increase, but infrequent carpools still need to fork over at least $40 toward prepaid tolls which may never get spent. Don't forget that to travel for free in the Metro ExpressLanes, HOV's need to have LA Metro's switchable FasTrak; patrons with a standard FasTrak can only use the HOT lanes as a toll-paying traveler.

Metro's actions are certainly questionable from both a fiscal and enforcement standpoint. For many agencies, monthly fees placed on inactive FasTrak accounts generally pay for the maintenance of such accounts which would otherwise get paid for by toll revenue. Prior to the complete waiver of monthly fees for LA County residents, four trips per month in the Metro ExpressLanes would waive such fees. The $3 monthly fee for inactive accounts is therefore a very fair price. County taxpayers should not be on the hook, nor should those who intend on using the ExpressLanes solely for free carpooling.

Suppose Metro did see a rapid increase in the number of FasTrak sign up's because of the fee waiver. As the number of FasTrak transponders increase, so does the complexity of combating carpool cheating. In the Metro ExpressLanes, a motorist's switchable FasTrak declares whether the vehicle is traveling as a free HOV or a toll-paying SOV. A prime reason why Metro mandates transponders for all HOV's is the ability of Metro to have a photo enforcement system, but even with the automated system, carpool enforcement still needs to be done by the CHP under an intelligence-driven model. Because such HOV declarations could easily be done through the absence of a transponder, a potential solution that the Coalition has long advocated is to abolish the FasTrak mandate for carpoolers and increasing the fine for carpool cheating. Several other HOT lane corridors throughout the country utilize this model which has encouraged carpooling and reduced HOV violations. If Metro wants to get more free carpoolers into the Metro ExpressLanes and avert the increased traffic congestion in the general purpose lanes, the agency needs to consider free non-transponder carpooling for their toll lanes.

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