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California: Freeway Toll Proposal Advances Despite Opposition
Proposal to convert HOV lanes to HOT lanes in Southern California will result in charging carpoolers to drive.

Reps. Hilda Solis and Gary Miller
The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LAMTA) is expected to vote tomorrow to approve a revised plan to impose tolls on existing California freeway lanes. In partial response to political pressure, the agency agreed to switch Interstate 110 for the 210 on the first round of tolling. As a result, many drivers currently using the existing Interstate 110 and 10 High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes will be charged $1 a mile to drive on the same lanes that they currently use for free.

The High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lane plan brings no new capacity to the area. Instead, local officials are desperate to grab $213.6 million in federal gas tax grants offered by the US Department of Transportation to encourage innovative methods of taxing motorists (view details).

Not everyone is pleased by the rapidly advancing proposal. Last week, a bipartisan group of six Southern California lawmakers wrote to the California Transportation Commission to express their "deep concern." Representatives Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar), Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk), David Dreier (R-San Dimas), Jane Harman (D-Los Angeles) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) each signed the letter urging the commission to think about more than just the grant money.

"While we share concerns about regional congestion and future growth, we do not believe such an expansive project throughout the region is a responsible solution," the lawmakers wrote. "We are also concerned about the impact of the transfer of congestion onto our local roads. The transportation department has acknowledged that when toll rates are applied, some drivers divert to 'free alternatives.' Increasing traffic on our neighborhood streets may not only increase local congestion, but may also pose serious safety concerns."

Lawmakers also complained that the commission has been withholding details about implementation so that they will not be scrutinized in public hearings or discovered until the lanes are activated. They also suggested that the diversion of federal taxpayer money to the project violated the congressional intent of transportation laws. To clarify, Congressman Miller last month introduced legislation that would explicitly ban HOT lane projects on existing freeways (view legislation).

A memorandum signed by LAMTA CEO Roger Snoble explained that the 210 was temporarily dropped from the project because its carpool lane was "overburdened and deteriorating." This means that had the HOT project gone forward, the existing level of use of the HOV lanes would have created additional congestion much earlier than expected. The memo also acknowledged the significant legislative pushback on the proposal.

"Implementing the project on the I-210 freeway likely would require us to charge two-person carpools, which currently operate free of charge, in order to generate additional capacity," the memo stated. "There are also concerns that carpoolers on the I-210 could shift into the mixed flow lane to avoid a toll, thereby causing further congestion. It is also likely that continuing to focus on the I-210 in the first phase could complicate the legislative approval process required to secure the USDOT funding, putting the $210.6 million at greater risk."

For the I-10 and I-110 projects, this extra congestion would be delayed at least for a few years meaning carpoolers would only be charged after the lanes were opened. In Southern California, carpool lanes are designated as HOV-2, allowing any vehicle with two passengers or more to travel in the lane. The HOT proposal will eventually change the requirement to HOV-3.

"The state enabling legislation will be required to provide that if the existing excess capacity of the I-110 becomes degraded that sale of space to single vehicle users becomes unworkable, charges would be automatically be imposed on all HOT lane vehicles carrying fewer than three occupants," the memo stated.

California's plan is not unique. The newly opened South Florida 95 Express HOT lanes will require carpoolers fill out a lengthy and invasive form to "register" before being allowed to use the "high occupancy" lanes. Similarly, Virginia's 495 Capital Beltway HOT Lanes project will require the state to make multi-million dollar annual payments to an Australian tolling firm if carpooling increases beyond a set level, ensuring local officials take measures to discourage carpooling.

A full copy of the memo is available in a 280k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Los Angeles County Congestion Reduction Demonstration Initiative (Los Angeles, California Metropolitan Transportation Agency, 7/24/2008)

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