How to Properly Deter Carpool Cheating in High Occupancy Toll Lanes

Using intelligence-driven enforcement and volunteer manpower to penalize cheaters, not over-regulating law-abiding carpools.

Don't cheat the I-15 Express Lanes: Law enforcement patrols San Diego's HOT lane infrastructure.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

The month of April is Points of Light's Volunteer Appreciation Month. National Volunteer Week, started Sunday: April 12-18, 2015.

I have a pitch to make to our governments during this National Volunteer Week: Encourage individuals to volunteer to get Southern California moving. One example is weeding out cheaters from our carpool and high occupancy tolled express lanes all throughout the state so that law-abiding carpools and toll-paying non-HOV's can continue to enjoy their streamlined mobility without the government getting too much in their way.

Coalition Concept: I-15 Express Lanes through Temescal Canyon
Note: Concept Only. Not endorsed by RCTC or any public entity.
Our Views on Toll Lanes

If you follow The Transit Coalition's campaigns, you well know that "We want toll lanes done right." We generally support congestion pricing. HOT lanes, especially those that involve the conversion of existing carpool lanes, should support free unrestricted carpooling without a requirement for a FasTrak toll transponder combined with robust law enforcement to counter cheating. The factual evidence for such a position is overwhelming.

AB 2090 and Free Non-Transponder Carpooling

While I was writing up last week's briefs on transit related matters, I stumbled across state legislation passed and signed into law late last summer that could very well affect the future of the Bay Area and San Diego County's high occupancy toll lane systems. The express lanes in both these regions minus the dedicated toll roads and toll bridges currently support free non-transponder carpooling because state law had required non-restricted free access for carpools.

But changes were made last summer.

The passage of AB 2090 was basically not covered by the press which meant I was not even aware of its existence until last Friday. But this new law opens the door for the regional agencies to impose mandatory FasTrak transponders for toll-free carpools in the name of better enforcement. I will follow up with their local press relation departments to confirm if there are any future plans to place toll transponder mandates on toll-free HOV's along the existing HOT lanes and I'll let you know what's going on. One Bay Area HOT Lane project along I-580 will require FasTrak transponders for HOV's. What is very interesting about these HOT lanes is that much of this section is slated to be continuous access.

Getting back to the legislation, here's a summary of the law according to the 8/12/14 Assembly Floor Analysis regarding the potential ETC mandate:

Regarding electronic tolling equipment for HOVs, SANDAG, and VTA intend to migrate to self-declaration switchable toll tags. These tags allow a driver to self-declare their vehicle occupancy status (such as HOV or solo driver) using a switching mechanism (e.g., slide, dial, push button, etc.) on the toll tag.  Switchable toll tags reportedly have many operational benefits including enhanced automated enforcement, consistency for users on corridors where carpool requirements vary, and reduced revenue leakage due to toll evasion and misread toll tags.

One potential drawback of using a switchable toll tag system is that it requires all HOV users to use a toll tag.  Currently, carpool vehicles are not required to have a toll tag when using San Diego or Bay Area express lanes.  If a carpool vehicle is equipped with a FasTrak toll tag in the windshield, the driver must remove the toll tag and place it in a Mylar bag for that trip to avoid being charged as a single-occupant vehicle.  

SANDAG and VTA are concerned that the existing statutory requirement that HOV drivers must have unrestricted access to HOT lanes could impede their ability to require HOV drivers to use a switchable toll tag.  The bill remedies this concern by specifically declaring that the agencies may require HOV drivers to use toll tags for enforcement purposes. 

91 Express Lanes Switchable FasTrak ETC
Photo: OCTA
Switchable FasTrak's and maintaining Free non-transponder carpooling

As I stated last week, the invention of the switchable FasTrak transponder is a good thing; I'll go into more detail in a future post. However, hopefully you noticed that one of the statements in the law about the switchable ETC's is pure spin.

The analysis claims "one potential drawback of using a switchable toll tag system is that it requires all HOV users to use a toll tag," but that statement is flat out false. Switchable toll transponder toll collection systems and free non-transponder carpooling in HOT lanes have already been in existence for some time and can co-exist.

Here's proof:

For HOT lane systems that support free non-transponder and unrestricted carpooling, the local policy can be set up in a way where motorists can either switch their FasTrak's to HOV mode or elect not to mount a transponder in order to self-declare themselves as a toll-free HOV. The I-15 Express Lanes through the Salt Lake City region already does this plus one of our blog readers who has a switchable FasTrak tipped me off last week and stated that the I-15 Express Lanes in San Diego charges no toll if the switchable FasTrak is mounted but set to a 2+ or 3+ HOV.

I will need to independently confirm that, but if that is true, the state already has a proven workable means for HOV's to self-declare their vehicle occupancies so they qualify for toll-free travel regardless if they have a FasTrak account or not. Currently, vehicles self-declare themselves as free carpools if they use the I-15 Express Lanes without a transponder or by placing it in a mylar bag.

I'm sure California's toll antenna enforcement beacon lights can be programmed to show the same color light for no transponder and a transponder switched for 2+ or 3+ HOV depending on the posted occupancy requirement for toll-free travel. UDOT and possibly SANDAG have already demonstrated that there are two ways for motorists to self-declare themselves as toll-free HOV's--either by switching the tag to HOV-mode or not mounting one at all. Therefore, this "potential drawback" statement of switchable FasTrak ETC's is a mere excuse and needs to be stricken from AB 2090.

To be fair, the rest of the law is not all bad. I generally back local control of managed lanes with efficient state oversight as evidenced with the grave congestion issues along LA's El Monte Busway last decade caused by strict state control on the 2+ occupancy requirements for carpool. Because local 2-person carpool demands are way too high during rush hour for the infrastructure, 3 needs to be the carpool for the El Monte Busway; the state had to pass emergency legislation to enforce that.

Also each transportation corridor is different; so VTA and SANBAG officials should have some decision making power with their express lanes and their usage policies.

The law also comments on properly tolling solo drivers who have a valid account but use a non-functioning or "misread" transponder. This blog has already addressed a workable solution if a law-abiding solo driver unknowingly brings along a defective FasTrak transponder along a HOT lane system that supports free non-transponder carpooling.

But the focus here is automated photo enforcement versus the carpool lane cheating.

Stopping carpool and toll-payment cheating in the HOT Lanes, the fair way...

Perhaps the biggest advantage of photo toll-payment enforcement is that it can catch toll-evaders when law enforcement resources are lacking or not present at times of violations.

They can quickly acquire evidence of the offense and the offending vehicle and issue an automated toll payment violation notice, thus deterring some HOT lane cheating. The law also cites that when transponders are mandated, the number of private HOV's drop in the lanes which would include deliberate violators. That's what happened on the Oakland Bay Bridge when HOV's using the carpool lanes at the toll plaza were required to pay discounted tolls with a FasTrak. But the fact is such policy also unfairly displaces non-registered law-abiding HOV's from the high occupancy lanes, an after-effect opposed by The Transit Coalition.

It's also worth mentioning that automated systems do have their flaws too. Perhaps the worst flaw is that no system can distinguish an actual toll or carpool violator with the vehicle owner. No matter who cheated the HOV/toll lane system, the vehicle's owner will get the responsibility and liability of handling the photo citation. Believe me, asking a family member or friend who borrowed the car to pony up $25 plus the posted toll to pay for a violation ticket is a humiliating situation. The violator needs to be held accountable, not the owner of the car. Plus, automated systems simply cannot enforce other traffic matters other than the presence of a toll transponder.

Governments from all levels really need to question the notion of imposing mandatory FasTrak transponders on carpools as the solution to counter carpool lane cheating because too many other enforcement issues still remain unresolved.

Southland freeway corridors experience all kinds of traffic violations everyday. Why are the governments looking into to slapping more regulations on law-abiding private HOV's as a solution? That's just unfair.

So I have put together an outline that the state and our tolling agencies may want to address by using the men and women in law enforcement.

The following violations must be handled by law enforcement and/or intelligence-driven tactics in the HOT lanes:

  • Carpool vehicle occupancy violations,
  • Holding the vehicle driver fully accountable to handle the violation ticket in lieu of penalizing or obstructing uninvolved vehicle owners,
  • Crossing over the double lines or through the delineators,
  • Dodging the toll collection/antenna areas,
  • Removing, masking or altering license plates to dodge tolls and photo tickets,
  • Unsafe lane changes,
  • Impeding the flow of traffic by using HOT lane access points and transitional weave lanes as a passing lane, 
  • Speeding,
  • Texting while driving,
  • Calling while driving without a hands-free device,
  • and several other traffic laws.

Cheaters well know how to game the system to get around the cameras if they know they're not being watched by the cops. A 2011 toll cheating story in San Francisco is proof.

Law enforcement needs to be there to enforce the rules. Placing a regulatory FasTrak registration burden on law-abiding toll-free carpools who may have no intention of using HOT lanes as a toll-paying solo driver is simply not fair.

Transportation agencies should be doing whatever they can to encourage motorists to share the ride, not sap it with trivial rules. With cleaner and more fuel efficient cars making their way into the marketplace, traffic congestion is almost guaranteed to soar in the coming years. The governments need to once again incentivize ridesharing with HOV infrastructure, ride-matching programs, park & ride lots, improved transit, and user-friendly laws while punishing carpool and toll lane cheaters with heavy fines and points.

Getting the floods of law enforcement employment applicants something to volunteer for...

If you or anybody you know wants to seek a job in law enforcement, you know the competition is tough, the applicant pool is flooded with qualified people, and those hired on as full-time career officers are few.

That means there should be no shortage of law enforcement personnel to enforce the law along California's highways, carpool and toll lanes. Because floods of good citizens desire to join the ranks, even as unpaid volunteers, they need to be given something to do to improve our broken communities. We are in desperate need of each of them. But many productive and caring citizens are not hired and are turned away.

That needs to change.

Either directly through the government agency or with a partnership with non-profit service organizations, there needs to be an expansion of unpaid support programs with limited responsibilities to get these people something to do. Opportunities include expanding volunteer explorer programs for the youth, and community action patrol and reserve deputy positions for the adults.

Every qualified applicant who passes the background checks and exams should have something to do if they don't make it to a paid position. The applicant not yet selected for a paid job can build up experience as a part-time or on-call unpaid volunteer either through the department directly or through the non-profit service sector. The agency can then hire career officers from the volunteer ranks who demonstrate that they are serious about improving the community. Because such people are not paid with the help from the private sector, the additional public resources would be minimal.

The unpaid volunteers can be tasked to assist the paid officers in lighter-weight traffic enforcement areas such as patrolling the high occupancy toll lane system and carpool lanes, 24/7. Simply parking a black & white volunteer community action patrol vehicle next to a HOT lane access point would deter cheating. Deliberate violators would see the "cop" car and won't try to game the system. That will allow the paid officers to continue to handle the heavier issues that require greater decision-making responsibilities.

Strong law enforcement combined with heavy fines and points should deter future violations in a fair way while keeping the highway and HOT lane system safe and moving. We need to get all these qualified law enforcement applicants something to do so we can fairly get rid of the carpool and toll-payment cheating problem once and for all without over-regulating law-abiding HOV's or penalizing uninvolved vehicle owners.

One last fact: Go to any major house of worship, church or non-profit group. You will see that unpaid volunteers make up the eyes, ears, hands and feet of those organizations with efficient oversight, decision making, and management by the paid staff.

Why can't we do the same to get Southern California moving?