November Inland Transit Briefing: Toll Lanes and LA Measure M

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

This Presidential Election and its political theater have certainly dominated the headlines. We've all got less than one week left of this circus and then we can finally turn some more attention back to transportation issues. I'll be glad when it's all over.

Because of that, other than the soon-to-open 91 Express Lanes into Corona and an unusual pre-dawn thunderstorm that came into town, there's not a whole lot going on in the Inland Empire transit landscape. However, there's a few interesting transit stories that came into the spotlight.

Rush Hour Light Show in Corona
A few Monday's ago on October 24 when it was still dark, morning Corona commuters witnessed more than brake lights along the westbound 91 as a spectacular thunderstorm came into town over the Santa Ana Mountains shortly after 6:20am. One bolt nearly stuck the train station and rocked the boarding platforms with a thundering explosion which knocked out the lights for a short time. The excitement lasted about 20 minutes.

Thankfully, nobody in the station was hurt during the show but several got a second shower in with the pouring rain that Southern California desperately so needs.

The storm cleared out as the morning sun rose.

Measure M & Conceptual Metro JEM Line in Los Angeles

Up in Los Angeles, there's a key proposition on the local ballot. The Transit Coalition has been backing a local tax measure that would maintain funding to expand LA's growing urban rail and bus transit system which, without question, has been a success. Maybe even too successful with standing-room only conditions on many routes like the Expo Line.

It's no question that these alternatives need to expand, especially along the I-405 corridor and Measure M will allow such projects to receive continued funding.

The transportation corridor that links Orange County through West LA and into the San Fernando Valley along the coast is car-centric with its sole major transit infrastructure being a single 2+ carpool lane each way served by limited commuter express services. Those express transit services don't link up with the Inland Empire.

In contrast, if one needs to get into Downtown LA from the Inland Empire, they have choices and connectivity.

But getting anywhere from the IE to major destinations like LAX, Long Beach, the new LA Rams football stadium or any points along the 405 north of Irvine without spending hours transferring between local buses requires a car. And the constant congested conditions along this freeway demands that high occupancy transit alternatives are badly needed. The Transit Coalition is calling for a rail tunnel in between West LA and the SF Valley as a solution which is dubbed the Metro JEM Line (Jobs, Education, Medical).

If LA has a robust, first rate rail and bus rapid transit system that connects with Metrolink and express bus services from Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, we can finally start closing these gaps and have efficient options to get around quickly through these dense corridors.

Public Transit Options along Inland Empire HOT Express Lanes

One infrastructure alternative that has also been proven to work has been high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes that supports rapid express bus transit routes and free carpooling.

Just visit the I-15 corridor between Escondido and Downtown San Diego for a prime example of a robust hub-and-spoke rapid transit corridor along a major freeway route. From Escondido, one can take a 2-seat transit ride all the way to the Mexican border. Direct access ramps link rapid transit routes to local routes, shuttles and feeders. They also connect private carpools and commuters to the nearby multi-modal transit centers and park & ride lots. San Diego County has Toll Lanes Done Right! Why can we not get a similar system here in the Inland Empire?

The Transit Coalition would like to see a such a workable system set up for the 91, I-15 and I-10 freeways where rapid express buses run from early morning until late night transporting people between major transit hubs via the Express Lanes infrastructure. Limited stop commuter express lines like RTA CommuterLink would also utilize it.

Here in the Inland Empire, the 91 Express Lanes extension through Corona is nearing completion as crews finish bridge work and erect signage. 3 or more persons is slated to be the carpool occupancy requirement for toll-free or discounted travel and all vehicles regardless if they are paying tolls must have a valid FasTrak transponder linked to a valid account. It will not support pay-by-plate.

I'm still trying to figure out how officials plan to route the existing and planned CommuterLink express buses and carpools from the North Main Corona Transit Center and nearby park & ride lot since this hub is completely voided of a connection. Either buses and carpools originating from this active peak-hour station have to backtrack to McKinley Ave to access the HOT lanes or use the general purpose lanes until they reach the County Line. After this project is complete, The Transit Coalition is going to watch for a solution of this transit and HOV gap and this has got to be dealt with.

One interim idea would be to have the 91 Express Lanes be continuous access in between the I-15 and Maple Avenue and utilize switchable transponders to declare a 3+ carpool. That would solve this issue immediately without creating excessive unsafe lane weaving.

To prevent congestion in the express lanes with the open access, should they get too crowded to maintain reliable speeds, they should momentarily become a dedicated 3+ carpool lane. "CARPOOLS 3 OR MORE ONLY w/ FASTRAK" messages should be shown in place of the toll rates on the message signs once traffic levels reach the point where speeds begin to slow. Non-carpools already in the lanes that have already locked in their toll will not be required to exit. Once traffic flow improves, the signs will revert the lanes back to HOT.

The I-580 Express Lanes in the Bay Area for example is one of first HOT Express Lanes to offer continuous access. To be clear, re-striping to continuous access for this section would require additional toll antennas and cameras to be placed and spaced apart about every 1/2 to 3/4 mile to discourage toll collection dodging. CHP would enforce the 3+ carpool occupancy requirements for toll-free or discounted travel.

Testing the Tolls on the Riverside County 91 Express Lanes

Meanwhile crews are currently testing the 91 toll rate signs which are now appearing to show demo tolls based on congestion pricing. Last week during the early morning rush hour at 6AM, the new toll rate sign in Corona for the westbound 91 Express Lanes showed the following text:

70A TEST495
70A TEST980

The prior Saturday night after 9PM when travel demands are much lighter, the same sign read:

70A TEST180
70A TEST415

On the eastbound side of the 91 at the County Line after 9PM that same Saturday, the soon-to-be toll rate sign was showing:

07A TEST180
07A TEST140

If these are demo tolls as the signs suggest, that could translate to:

6AM Westbound Peak from Corona (except Friday)
SR-241 $4.95
Kraemer Blvd $9.80

9PM Saturday Westbound Off-Peak from Corona
SR-241 $1.80
Kraemer Blvd $4.15

9PM Saturday Eastbound Off-Peak from County Line
I-15/Ontario Ave $1.80
McKinley St $1.40

For the record, the current OC 91 Express Lanes toll from the County Line access point to the 55 is $4.85 on weekdays at 6AM except Friday and $1.55 on Saturday based on the October 2016 Toll Schedule. Doing the math, the demo tolls between the County Line and the 55 would have been $4.85 during rush hour which matches the current rate. However, the Saturday toll calculates to $2.35 which does not match $1.55 but does match the $2.35 westbound rate charged during the 7PM hour.

Again, just be clear, these toll rate numbers are tests and demos only. Exact wording and official and final non-HOV 3+ toll rates for the full 91 Express Lanes corridor are pending release.

91 Express Lanes Weekend Shift with Revamped OC HOT Lanes 

On the Orange County side of the 91 HOT Lanes, the "91 Weekend Shift" project has transformed the 20+ year old tollway with new paving, compliant white striping, new deliminator posts and soon-to-be new toll rate message signs. The Express Lanes closures have led to some Carmageddon stop-and-go congestion through the closed sections; however local surface street traffic in Corona has remained gridlock free.

The Transit Coalition will continue to keep watch as our freeway corridors need better solutions to move more people from here to there other than driving solo in a car. Rapid express transit buses and carpools need to be able to utilize the growing HOT Express Lane network with seamless connectivity to/from nearby stations. Plus the state and feds need to better fund such corridors. That will allow local operators the ability to permit free non-FasTrak transponder carpooling on such systems which will better redistribute the traffic flow. Such infrastructure is needed to close the transit gaps in between the Inland Empire and coastal destinations northwest of Orange County.