The 91 Express Lanes can really get Southern California Moving

The new HOT Lane extension through Corona promises relief from congestion and many people are taking advantage of it. What simple policies can be adopted to guarantee travel speeds?

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

When it first opened in 1995, back in the days when one way off-peak tolls were under a buck, the 91 Express Lanes became one of the first FasTrak-automated toll lane facilities around. Built with private funds, the Express Lanes were the solution to provide capacity improvement to the SR-91 corridor at a time when no public funds were available.

On the surface, the public-private partnership appeared noble; the operator California Private Transportation Company would assume the risks involved and the state would get additional transportation infrastructure at no cost to taxpayers. It sounded like a perfect solution.

However, buried in the agreement between CPTC and Caltrans was the disastrous non-compete provision that created a 1 1/2 mile no-improvement zone along each side of SR-91. The clause prohibited any improvements along the corridor for a 30 year period. As the Inland Empire grew, transportation officials knew that a new agreement had to be made.

Photo: OCTA
In 2003, the Orange County Transportation Authority purchased the 91 Express Lanes which eliminated the non-compete provision, clearing the way for further infrastructure and transit improvements.

Following the purchase, the toll lanes underwent a complete marketing makeover with the new 91 Express Lanes logo, the catchy blue and white toll rate and message signs, and new transponders. In addition, the toll lanes became a High Occupancy Toll facility with the announcement of the "3 Ride Free" incentive where carpools or other HOV's with 3 or more passengers and a registered FasTrak transponder can travel toll free except eastbound between 4-6pm Monday through Friday.

The elimination of the non-compete rule also allowed for the development of the Riverside County extension of the 91 Express Lanes to the I-15 junction.

The New 91 Express Lanes

In March, officials launched the opening of the extended HOT lanes into Riverside and south Corona, thus creating the four-lane, 18-mile Express Lanes within the median of the 91 Freeway in between SR-55 and I-15. The facility offers one intermediate access point at the county line near Green River Road for motorists to enter and exit as well as a direct access ramp at the I-15 freeway to/from the south.

As a separate project, the Orange County section was revamped with federally compliant signs, white double lines that separate the HOT Lanes and general purpose lanes, new delineators, and new paving.

As mentioned, vehicles with three or more people travel toll free except eastbound, Monday through Friday from 4-6pm. During this PM rush hour period, these HOV 3+ motorists pay 50% of the posted toll. The carpool discounts are applied by using the dedicated 3+ Lane at the toll gantries.

This extension is a milestone moment for the Corona Crawl.

Continuous Improvement

As with any other transportation project around, continuous improvement of the corridor will be perpetual. This includes adopting policies that will keep the 91 Express Lanes moving at guaranteed speeds of at least 45-50 mph during rush hours.

Because travel demands along the 91 corridor are so high, the Express Lanes too have been filling to capacity for both sections. That means immediate solutions must take place. One noticeable issue is bottle-necking at the toll collection points with weaving traffic between the two toll and single 3+ carpool lane as the prime suspect. Bottle-necking is also present at the end of the Express Lanes headed eastbound for the branch that continues into Riverside. On top of adjusting tolls of which officials are currently executing, two other solutions which can be executed immediately can resolve that. Here is what should be considered:

Adopt FasTrak Flex Carpools with 3 or more passengers can then use the switch on their transponder to declare their carpool and not have to weave to the single 3+ Lane to receive their discounts.

Prior to starting their trips, motorists will indicate the number of occupants in the vehicle by moving the switch on the transponder to the appropriate setting (1, 2, 3+). 2-person carpools will still be charged the full toll on the 91 Express Lanes and 3+ HOV's 50% eastbound from 4-6pm on weekdays.

Because the 91 Express Lanes already offers a switchable transponder option for account holders that use LA's Metro ExpressLanes, the only major work that will need to be done is to reprogram the toll gantries and enforcement beacon lights to support FasTrak Flex and use Flex as the main transponder.

HOV 3+ Only When demand increases and travel speeds fall below 45 mph despite high posted tolls, the 91 Express Lanes should automatically close access to non-carpools with the message displayed on the electronic signs reading “HOV 3+ ONLY w/ FASTRAK”, indicating that the non-carpools will not be allowed to enter the Express Lanes until average speeds go above 45 mph.

Toll paying drivers already in the Express Lanes when the sign displays “HOV 3+ ONLY w/ FASTRAK” will be able to complete their trip and not be mandated to exit at the County Line.

Another issue that should be considered is simplifying the intermediate access point at the County Line by restriping the third exit/entrance auxiliary lane as one continuous access weave lane instead of separate sets of exit and entrance lanes. That means motorists should be able to use the entire 1-mile stretch of this section to enter and exit the Express Lanes via the weave lane legally. This will reduce bottleneck conflicts in this area. Currently, there are a multitude of sections with double white lines without the delineator posts separating the lanes. The double white lines define the exit and entry points but can get very confusing if one is not paying attention to the signs. Thus, it can become very easy for drivers to make lane change mistakes and accidentally cross over the double white lines with no intention to evade tolls or cheat the system.

San Diego's I-15 Express Lane system has it right.

All officials have to do is restripe the intermediate exit/entrance lanes as a single full mile, continuous access weave lane and separate the two Express Lanes with a single section of double white lines or even have this section be continuous access too depending on traffic patterns. The mile-long continous-access section will better allow vehicles entering and exiting to accelerate or decelerate via the weave lane and to store additional potential vehicle queues which will ease pressure and reduce illegal lane changes in this area.

On the public transit front, there is official word that the 91 Express Lanes is slated to get a variation of Rapid Express bus service for the corridor with departures every hour during the workweek with the route starting at the San Bernardino Transit Center and ending at Disneyland with service to ARTIC. This will be a big story. A tri-county, all-day bus route along the 91 with hourly frequency on weekdays...How will that impact the existing RTA Route 216? How can the existing Corona Transit Center and the Village at Orange hub points play roles in this too? What about weekends? The analysis is coming...



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