ExpressLanes project may be delayed

The conversion of carpool lanes to toll lanes on parts of the 10 and 110 freeways could be pushed back 19 months — to 2012 — under a plan to be considered by the Metro Board of Directors at their meeting on Thursday. It’s item No. 47 on the meeting agenda.

First, a little background.

In 2008, Metro and Caltrans received a $210.6-million federal grant to try a one year test-run of a so-called “congestion pricing” project in Los Angeles County. The idea is to sell extra space in the carpool lanes to single motorists who are willing to pay a fee to use the lanes to speed up their trips (carpoolers continue to use the lanes for free under existing rules). Metro is calling the new toll lanes “ExpressLanes.”

The toll will vary depending on the time of day — the higher the demand, the higher the toll to discourage too many people from using the lane and to keep traffic moving at least at 45 mph; if speeds fall below that for 10 minutes, the tolling system is shut down. The tolls will vary between 25 cents a mile to a $1.40 a mile.

What’s to be gained by this, you ask?

The thinking is that adding the toll lanes — commonly called “HOT” lanes — may pull some traffic from the regular lanes, give people a chance to quicken their commutes, provide a chance to add more bus and vanpool service and also raise money for transportation improvements. The above map and fact sheet show the location of the toll lanes and some planned improvements in the areas impacted.

In academic circles, the idea of congestion pricing is very popular because it embraces a demand-and-supply approach to managing roads. How popular it is with taxpayers here who use the freeways, of course, remains to be seen although HOT lanes seem to work elsewhere (such as the 91 between the OC and Riverside counties). For you wonks out there, here’s an interesting 2007 paper written by three UCLA researchers that examines some of the politics of congestion pricing.

Back to the present: Under the original agreement with the feds, the toll lanes were supposed to be up and running by the end of 2010. But Metro staff said more time is needed and one big reason is the desire to make some freeway improvements so that the congestion pricing lanes will be more effective. The U.S. Department of Transportation has sent Metro a letter approving of the time extension and the agency has granted multiple extensions to congestion pricing projects in Miami, Minnesota and Seattle and also allowed a major change to San Francisco’s project.

Here’s a link to a report by Metro staff outlining why more time is needed to implement the project. One of the big fixes is adding a second HOT lane to the 10 freeway between the 605 and 710. Why is that a big deal? Besides the whole tolling issue, a criticism of the congestion pricing project involves the question of how much space there is to sell in the carpool lanes. The 110 section of the toll project already has two carpool lanes in each direction, but the 10 portion only has one. If that’s bumped up to two, there’s more room to sell.

In related news, there are two public meetings scheduled for March 9 and 10 to discuss the draft environmental impact report on the project. Here’s the link for the report on the 10 freeway part of the project and here’s the link for the report on the 110 freeway section.

And below is the information on the meetings, from an email sent to interested parties:

Caltrans is soliciting comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Assessment (Draft EIR/EA) for the proposal to convert existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV, or carpool) lanes on the San Bernardino Freeway (I-10) and the Harbor Freeway (I-110) to High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. Click here to visit the Caltrans website where the electronic document is available.

Written comments may be submitted through March 29, 2010 to: Ron Kosinski, Deputy District Director, California Department of Transportation, Division of Environmental Planning, 100 S Main St, MS 16A, Los Angeles, CA 90012. The Draft EIR/EA is also available for review and copying at the Caltrans District 7 Division of Environmental Planning, 100 S Main St, Los Angeles, CA 90012 weekdays from 8am to 4:30pm.

Draft EIR/EA Public Hearings

The hearings are scheduled as follows:

Interstate 110 (Harbor Freeway/Transitway) HOT Lanes Project
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Andrew Norman Hall
Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital Foundation
2400 S Flower St
Los Angeles, CA 90007
6pm – 8pm

There will be an informal open house from 5pm – 6pm.
Served by: Metro Bus Lines 37, 38, 40, 45, 55, 81, 603, Metro Silver Line, and Metro Blue Line.

Interstate 10 (San Bernardino Freeway/Busway) HOT Lanes Project
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Metro San Gabriel Valley Service Sector
Council Chambers
3449 Santa Anita Av, 3rd Floor
El Monte, CA 91731
6pm – 8pm

There will be an informal open house from 5pm – 6pm.
Served by: Metro Bus Lines 70, 76, 190, 194, 267, 268, 577, Foothill Transit Lines 178, 269, 486, 492, Silver Streak, and Metro Silver Line.