Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tale of Two Toll Lane Proposals

Concept: 91 Express Lanes entrance that supports free non-transponder 3+ carpooling with a transitional weave lane.
Note: Concept Only. Not endorsed by OCTA or RCTC.
Two Southland high occupancy toll lane proposals are nearly identical: The 91 Express Lanes extension and the I-405 Improvement project in Orange County.

Both propose to double the capacity of the existing high occupancy carpool lane to two lanes each way, raise its occupancy requirement to 3, and allow non HOV's access for a toll. Both corridors would require all vehicles to preregister for a FasTrak transponder including free carpools. The 91 will have mandatory 50% tolls for 3+ carpoolers during the PM rush hour in the peak direction and the I-405 may adopt a similar policy. Also, both projects propose to add a general purpose lane each way, expand auxiliary lanes, and upgrade freeway interchanges.

Despite the fact that both of these projects are similar in scope, the public response has been sharply different. The 91 project has been generally accepted. The I-405 toll lanes are opposed by many individuals, groups, and even cities. Why so? Here are some facts.

91 Express Lane Extension:

Inland Empire commuters who use the 91 Freeway are generally welcoming the capacity improvement project. Opposition has been fairly quiet over the carpool lane conversion other than some local belly-aching from local businesses displaced by the project. Ordinarily, The Transit Coalition would oppose converting carpool lanes into transponder-mandated toll lanes. Both Los Angeles and Atlanta demonstrated that such conversions displace non-registered carpoolers with the leftover space being sold to non HOV traffic.

The fact is carpool demands are so high for the 91 that whenever the freeway loads up through Corona during peak commute hours, hot summer days, many weekends, and most holidays, so does the HOV lane. Speeds in the carpool lane are just as slow as the regular lanes. Such extremely slow speeds are also often the case for the mile long transitional buffer along the eastbound side of the freeway between the existing 91 Express Lanes and the 71 Freeway where there is a set of dual 2+ carpool/FasTrak lanes.

Note: Signage Concept Only. Not endorsed by OCTA.
Those examples show that 3 should be the carpool for the 91 and the public is generally accepting that for now. The Riverside County Transportation Commission has been very transparent on this proposal and The Press Enterprise recently ran this story which landed on the front page of a Sunday newspaper. Currently, we are advocating for the local agencies to get the 91 Express Lanes debt paid off so that it can financially support free non-transponder 3+ carpooling. That is, any 3-person HOV would be able to use the high occupancy vehicle lane infrastructure for free while non-carpools have the option of using it for a toll.

With the capacity improvements associated with the 91 Express Lane extension, the chaos caused by the displacement of non-registered and 2-person carpools should be minimal for the short term with the added general purpose lane. That's why we will not oppose this project. However, there is enough interstate demand on this corridor where both the state and the federal government should contribute resources toward getting the debt paid off so that the 91 can have a robust dual 3+ carpool lane that would be long-lasting. We're also looking to get additional express bus infrastructure and direct access ramps into the facility so that it can better support high speed express bus transit service. RCTC should also launch a strong marketing campaign to convert 2-person carpools to 3 prior to the carpool lane conversion.

I-405 Toll Lanes through Orange County

The tone is much different in Orange County. The I-405 toll lane proposal has received massive amounts of opposition. Unlike the 91, the existing I-405 carpool lane loads up during peak commute hours in the peak direction. Even with the reduced speeds during peak congestion, the HOV lane sustains faster speeds. If its capacity is doubled, there would be no reason to raise its occupancy requirement to 3. Dual carpool lanes would allow 2+ carpoolers fast speeds during the rush hour.

As we've mentioned, if the I-405 had a facility similar to San Diego County's I-15 Express Lane system where carpools 2 or more can travel for free and not have to preregister for a toll transponder, the public would likely be satisfied with the end product. OCTA staff claim a revenue shortfall if 2's a carpool, but that is no excuse not to develop transportation infrastructure that already works down south. Toll lanes must not serve as money fountains for the government. They need to be about moving people. Because the I-405 is a major interstate, our transportation tax money should be going to this corridor. Since one of the proposed I-405 alternatives to be paid for by taxes was to add 2 general purpose lanes in each direction; a fair compromise would be to add one general purpose and one carpool lane. The dual high occupancy lanes would support free non-transponder carpooling; solo drivers who wish to buy their way into the carpool lanes at the market rate would have that option. Stats show there are groups of solo motorists would be willing to tax themselves into the high occupancy vehicle lane.

Because the I-405 toll lane debate has become more about money than moving people, the public's view of it has become very negative. The corridor certainly is in need of high occupancy transit infrastructure between Irvine and the San Fernando Valley. We're currently supporting a light rail proposal into West Los Angeles from Sylmar dubbed the JEM Line. However, high speed rapid transit infrastructure needs to be extended between West LA into Irvine. Dual carpool lanes with rapid express bus service might be able to do that for the Orange County branch.

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