How Toll Lanes can benefit Non-Carpoolers

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

With high occupancy toll lanes making their way onto Southland freeways which includes the current construction of the 91 Express Lanes through Corona, free mobility will be a long-lasting reality for high occupancy vehicle traffic travelling along high-volume Southern California freeway corridors. With a set of 2 express lanes each way, public express buses, 2+ or 3+ private HOVs, motorcycles, private sector bus lines, and motorists willing to toll their way out of traffic congestion can get from one end of the Inland Empire to the other quickly.

The Transit Coalition generally supports multi-modal HOT express lanes and congestion pricing with a usage policy that permits 2+ or 3+ carpools to have free access to these lanes depending on the volume of carpools. A full-width freeway lane typically has a full-speed capacity of about 1,500 cars per hour; thus if a corridor with two HOV/HOT lanes is carrying any more than 2,500-3,000 2+ HOV's per hour (ie. at least 5,000-6,000 people per hour), 3 should be the carpool to keep the lanes flowing at full speeds. Both the 91 and the I-10 east of Los Angeles warrant 3 as the carpool, at least during rush hour.

In addition, we believe that HOV's should be be able to travel toll-free without a requirement for Fastrak transponders especially for highway projects that involve the conversion of existing carpool lanes to HOT. Plus, toll lanes need to support expanded transit services with direct access ramps between the HOT lanes and adjacent transit hubs. That would provide better infrastructure for productive rapid express bus service and additional amenities for HOV's such as park & ride lots and car sharing facilities. I'll have more on that at a later time regarding the 91 Project and the Corona Transit Center which is a major hub point for Riverside Transit Agency buses. 

What if you need to use your car for work?

While I understand that more people are going to either need to start carpooling or taking public transportation to/from work to offset the growing traffic congestion and our HOV lane capacity and options need to be improved, I need to make very clear that there are many in the workforce who need to use their car during the day for their work.

That's an undeniable fact.

It would be impracticable for district managers, sales representatives, real estate agents, service workers, and others to get around multiple worksites or to their clients and customers without a vehicle. How can high occupancy toll lanes benefit them?

I have two solutions.

© Flickr/CalCars CC-BY-SA
I. Expansion of car-sharing facilities at receiving transit hubs

This solution is for those who can carpool or ride the bus to work but need affordable access to a car during the day.

As a rider, the commuter could be dropped off at a transit station near the commuter's place of work. The worker would then have across-the-platform access to car-sharing services at the transit station's parking lot and be on his/her way. That would be an affordable alternative to car rental services or needing to buy a second personal vehicle.

Zipcar currently partners with Metrolink for services at LA Union Station. Why not expand those services elsewhere in the Southland?

Also, here's a simplified solution that doesn't require much rocket science: The commuter within an HOV who needs the car would be the designated driver of the carpool.

II. Business Tax Deductions for Tolls

This solution is for businesses and individuals whose primary office is the car and spend more than the standard IRS deduction rates. Unless you're hauling a trailer which restricts you to the right two lanes of the freeway or the HOT lanes are in HOV-only mode, business people outside of an HOV can use the HOT lane system to bypass traffic and then deduct the tolls from their taxes.

According to the feds, tolls for most business-related travel trips can be deducted. Unless a trip is an everyday commute to/from work which would be considered a personal expense or the trip requires the driver to be away from their home longer than a typical workday, tax deductible transportation expenses include the necessary costs of all of the following:
  •   Getting from one workplace to another in the course of your business or profession when you are traveling within the city or general area that is your tax home.
  •   Visiting clients or customers.
  •   Going to a business meeting away from your regular workplace.
  •   Getting from your home to a temporary workplace when you have one or more regular places of work. These temporary workplaces can be either within the area of your tax home or outside that area.
IRS Publication 17, Chapter 26 provides a complete run-down of what business trips can be deducted for 2014 and which ones cannot. Tax advisers can provide straight answers to tough tax-related questions.

In addition to tolls, businesses can also deduct any business-related mileage travel which is 56 cents per mile. If a construction contractor from downtown Riverside used the 91 Express Lanes as a solo driver, went to his client's site in Orange on a Friday at 7AM and had to return to Riverside at 3PM, the deduction for the 60 mile trip would be a $5.05 express lane toll coming in, a $9.85 toll coming out, and about $33.60 for mileage. The tax deduction would be $48.50 for that trip.

Transportation Tip: If you run a business, you know the tax man will come one way or another. It's likely your expenses exceed the standard deduction rates.  I would encourage such people to find out from a tax adviser whether or not HOT lane tolls would allow for a nice break on their federal taxes owed.

If so, such people should log such trips for business and register for a FasTrak toll transponder for business transportation use. Since HOT lane toll revenue is generally obligated to maintain the local infrastructure, funds expanded transit services within the lanes, and pays off infrastructure debt, such money which would otherwise be going to the federal government would stay local.

For the record: This is a tip only and The Transit Coalition does not offer tax advice. If you're not sure whether or not your business trips are tax deductible, consult a tax professional.