More Money-Centric Talk about Toll Lanes

The debate and media coverage over high occupancy toll lanes in the Inland Empire center around the cash once more.

Coalition Concept: I-15 Express Lanes through north Lake Elsinore.
Note: Concept only. Not endorsed by RCTC or any public entity.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Last Friday, the Press Enterprise brought the Inland Empire high occupancy toll lane debate into the fiscal spotlight once more by running a major story that centers around the dollar.

Want a faster commute? You may get one if you’re willing to spend a little more money.

San Bernardino County is moving ahead with plans for toll lanes, much like those already under construction on Riverside County’s portion of the 91 Freeway in Corona.

Both Inland counties are following the path of Orange County, which has had toll lanes and toll roads for years and whose experience has been bumpy.

The toll lanes mentioned in the article are actually high occupancy toll lanes dubbed as express lanes because they are proposed to be free or discounted for carpools.

Many people object to putting express lanes on Southland freeways because the notion of paying more for faster travel has taken center stage in the debate. But I don't object to HOT lanes in general.

Benefits of HOT Lanes:

The Transit Coalition generally supports congestion pricing and high occupancy vehicle infrastructure. That is simply because the dual HOV express lanes along Southland freeways can provide a virtual dedicated transitway for express transit buses, private sector coaches, motorcycles and other private high occupancy vehicles. If there's open capacity, non-carpools can buy their way in for a toll. Many motorists have long demonstrated that they are willing to tax themselves into a faster-moving HOV lane if they need to be somewhere quickly during the rush hour.

Designing a HOT lane system where transit buses can seamlessly access transit centers, stations and major activity centers away from the highway itself can provide a pathway toward productive and funded rapid express service with an early morning to late night service span in addition to expanded limited stop commuter express lines.

Look no further than San Diego County's I-15 Express Lanes Rapid One Sweet Ride and LA's Metro Silver Line and Silver Streak Rapid Express services along the I-10 El Monte Busway. The stations need to be away from the actual freeway as median, shoulder, and interchange stations have proven to be a cold and uninviting experience.

Other benefits of the high occupancy lanes are:
  • Provides motorists an incentive to travel aboard transit or an HOV.
  • Occupancy requirements and non-HOV toll rates can be managed to guarantee travel speeds of at least 45-50 MPH during rush hour.
  • Increases the number of people (not just vehicles) traveling through a corridor. A freeway-speed lane can carry up to 1,500-2,000 vehicles per hour. Dual HOV/HOT lanes can carry up to 3,000-4,000 HOV's per hour, adding up to a peak-capacity of at least 6,000-8,000 people per hour under a 2+ usage policy and 9,000-12,000 people under a 3+ system.
  • Toll-free, non-transponder travel for HOV's promotes ridesharing.
  • Tolling non-HOV's and granting them access can prevent the lanes from being under-utilized or having the "empty lane syndrome" while the toll prevents SOV's from over-saturating or clogging the infrastructure.
The San Bernardino Associated Governments' plan to consider building the express lanes along the I-15 and I-10 freeway corridors would mostly be capacity improvement and not involve the conversion of any existing general purpose lane but would include the conversion of the existing 2+ carpool lane between Ontario and Montclair. That is why the HOT lanes need to support free non-transponder carpooling so that existing HOV's can continue to use the lanes seamlessly without needing to pre-register for a FasTrak account.

Opposing Views
State Transportation Funding: Agencies must acknowledge that transportation revenues are up, not in decline. The state must be held to account to stop displacing funds elsewhere. HOT lane opponents are not wrong with this point.
Graphic: CA Board of Equalization

However, I do want to hear out what the opposing party has to say because valid points like long-term debt, stopping transportation funding displacement at the state and federal level, and ensuring low-income motorists have efficient travel options too are dealt with.

But the media coverage of all this basically was centered around the dollar and not really about moving people. Very little was said about the benefits of multi-modal mobility while more emphasis was placed on funding.

San Diego County's I-15 Express Lanes is a major success story in regards to transit and HOV mobility. 2-person or more carpools travel toll-free without needing to mount a FasTrak and robust HOV and rapid transit services allow people of all incomes to enjoy an efficient ride up and down the corridor--no mentioning of that in the report.

The "Toll Free IE" Facebook page that smeared SANBAG got even more exposure as former candidate for the Fontana City Council Tressy Capps stated, "We are taxed to death in this state...They want to really make it expensive for the average American to drive."

To be fair, Capps is correct that Californian's are taxed heavily and the state government must be held to account of our transportation tax money. She also went on and mentioned the debt issue; both the state and federal government need to ensure fuel tax money is paying for these transit upgrades and not being displaced to other interests. But that is no excuse to continue the smear tactics against SANBAG if the governing board wants to expand the HOV infrastructure.

Yes, SANBAG's resume is far from perfect and constructive criticism of its actions are warranted.

Here's what I said about the de-funding of train trips from the Metrolink San Bernardino Line that occurred last summer:

It was clearly wrong for San Bernardino County to simply refuse to pay its bill and put the Metrolink San Bernardino Line in its fiscal jam. SCRRA member agencies have a responsibility to their taxpaying constituents to ensure that train service is available to keep their transportation
networks flowing. If there's a disagreement or dispute, elected board members need to debate it and agree to form fact-based solutions that won't unfairly tear apart the system. Elected officials should also not accept any excuses.

Think about it: The citizens of Los Angeles County who paid their bill in full and commute into San Bernardino aboard the affected routes will be unfairly negated by this madness. That's where we need to demand leadership from elected officials.

If there's a legit issue, both We the People and the media need to expose it and back it up with facts. That's what makes up the Transit Coalition's campaigns. But pointless sears like labeling the regional transportation agency the "SANBAG Secret Society" is not going to get Southern California moving. That only waters down her loud voice and causes members of the SANBAG board to not listen to her views at all. That is unfortunate because the smear attacks would distract the governing board from hearing out the valid claims.

As I've pointed previously, Capps has gotten herself in trouble before for presenting legit issues like international flag etiquette improperly.

Capps and other toll lane opponents are always welcome to post comments through this blog and join in the debate about toll lanes. My rule for her and everybody else posting comments is no personal attacks or smear tactics. But I always welcome a good debate because many people bring up good supporting points even though I may disagree with their final positions.

As for the media coverage, both the Press Enterprise and the San Bernardino Sun know that the Transit Coalition exists as there are reporters and columnists that follow this blog. Both outlets should check out the Coalition's views on high occupancy toll lanes. We need to get its benefits of moving the high volumes of people into the press so that the toll lane debate can remain fair and impartial.