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L.A. County toll lanes get smooth start, despite some grumbling

November 11, 2012 |  5:13 pm

APphoto_LA_Freeway_Tolls

As officials unveiled the Los Angeles County's first toll lanes on an 11-mile stretch of the 110 Freeway this weekend, some drivers said they still had questions about how the new fare program worked and wondered whether it would benefit them.

The express lanes officially opened late Saturday night, from Adams Boulevard just south of downtown to the Harbor Gateway Transit Center near Torrance and the 91 Freeway. They were created using the existing carpool lanes.

As a result, drivers now can pay to leave mixed-flow traffic and enter the express lanes, saving what officials said could be two to three minutes a mile.

The tolls vary from 25 cents to $1.40 a mile, depending on congestion and demand. Officials aim to keep travel speeds in the express lanes at least 45 miles per hour. They estimate the average toll for a motorist will be between $4 and $7 a trip, though it could be as much as $15.40.

Stephanie Wiggins, the executive in charge of the program for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said Sunday afternoon that "it's going smoothly right now, no issues to report."

Although officers are still patrolling the freeways, the California Highway Patrol's special enforcement of the express lanes is not scheduled to begin until Monday.

While many elected officials and academics tout the potential benefits of the lanes, some motorists have grumbled that the tolls are yet another government squeeze on their wallets. Some of the sharpest critics are taxi drivers, some of whom said they felt forced to buy the transponders needed to use the lanes just to do their jobs. 

Regardless, tens of thousands of motorists have bought into the program. Metro officials said they have already issued more than 30,000 transponders.

The lanes are part of a one-year, federally funded demonstration effort that also includes another stretch of express lanes on 14 miles of the 10 Freeway between Union Station and the 605 Freeway that are scheduled to open early next year.

Officials said they will rigorously evaluate the express lanes to determine whether to continue beyond the first year and possibly expand to other freeways around the county.

For those who want to use the express lanes, here are a few things to know:

- Anyone who uses the lanes, including carpoolers and motorcyclists, needs a transponder. They cost $40 if you pay with a credit/debit card, and that money can be used toward fares. If you pay with cash, the upfront cost is $75, $50 of which can be used toward fares. Discounts are available for low-income households. The devices can be purchased online at www.metroexpresslanes.net; at walk-in centers at 500 W. 190th Street in Gardena or at the El Monte Station at 3501 Santa Anita Ave.; and by printing out and mailing an application to Metro ExpressLanes, P.O. Box 3878, Gardena, CA 90247.

- Although carpoolers and motorcyclists need a transponder, they do not have to pay tolls. Officials suggest motorcyclists set their transponders to 3+ at all times. 

- Those with electric and hybrid vehicles still need transponders and must pay tolls, even if they have a sticker. Wiggins said that will change after March 1, 2014, when those with electric and hybrid vehicles will still need a transponder and a green or white sticker issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles, but will not be charged tolls.

- FasTrak-brand transponders from other regions will work here, but motorists will be charged the same rates as solo drivers even if they are carpooling because their devices do not have the same settings.

- Fines for using the lanes without a transponder can run between $25 and $55. Transponders must be set to accurately reflect the number of passengers in the vehicle on each trip. Those caught setting a transponder to two people or more while driving solo will face fines of at least $341.

- Officials said that if increased demand means average speeds in the express lanes fall below 45 miles per hour, they will change electronic message signs for lanes to read "HOV only" until speeds climb back up.

- Those who bought transponders and created electronic accounts using a credit/debit card or TAP ReadyCARD should know their cards "will automatically be charged $40 or the equivalent of one month's usage averaged over a three-month period (whichever amount is greater) each time your account balance falls below $10," according to an informational pamphlet from Metro. Those who paid cash must make a payment of at least $50 when their account falls below $25.

- Drivers can use the same transponder on different vehicles as long as the license plates for those vehicles are added to the FasTrak transponder's account.

- There is a $3 monthly account maintenance fee that is automatically deducted. That fee is waived for those who qualify for low-income discounts and for drivers who "make four one-way trips per month on the Metro express lanes in any combination of transit, carpool, vanpool or toll-paying SOV," according to information materials from Metro.

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-- Ari Bloomekatz

Photo: Cameras and electronic sensors over the ExpressLanes on the 110 Freeway, south of the Slauson Avenue transit station. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

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