First look: transponders for Metro’s ExpressLanes project

And there it is above: the transponders that motorists will need to use the future ExpressLanes on the 10 and 110 freeways.

The project is converting the carpool lanes on sections of both roads — see the map after the jump — to “High-Occupancy Toll” lanes, known more commonly as HOT lanes.

Those who currently use the carpool lanes won’t be charged a toll. When traffic is moving and there’s sufficient space in the lanes, other motorists will be able to use the lanes in exchange for a toll. The price of the toll will rise and fall depending on the level of demand.

There will be two HOT lanes in each direction on both the 10 and 110 and the hope is that this one-year experiment — funded by the federal government — will help speed up traffic and transit use across the entire freeway by better distributing vehicles across all lanes. The ExpressLanes on the 110 are scheduled to open in the early fall of 2012 with the lanes on the 10 to open in early 2013.

A map of the ExpressLanes project. Click above to view a larger image.

Transponders are used around the U.S. to electronically collect tolls from motorists — it’s a lot faster than making everyone stop at a toll booth. Metro’s transponders are unique because of the switch on them that motorists must set to tell electronic sensors along the ExpressLanes how many people are in their vehicle.

A couple of examples of how this will work:

Let’s say you’re a motorist who carpools with two other people on the 10 freeway. Before entering the ExpressLanes, you would need to flip the switch to “3.” That tells the sensors and law enforcement officials that there are three people in your car and that you should not be charged any tolls because you are carpooling.

Another example: Let’s say you’re driving alone on the 110 freeway and would like to use the ExpressLanes to escape heavy traffic in the general lanes. In that case, you would flip the switch to “1” and the sensor would charge the motorist a toll.

And how much is the toll? Again, it will depend on the level of traffic — the more traffic, the higher the toll to discourage too many people from using the ExpressLanes. Tolls will range from 25 cents per mile to $1.40 per mile. Overhead electronic signs will inform motorists of the current price of the tolls, so they can make a decision about whether they want to spend the money to enter the ExpressLanes or not.

How to get a transponder? They will be available beginning this spring for those who want to open a pre-paid account, which includes a deposit for the transponder and some money to cover tolls. It costs $40 to open an account with a credit or debit card, $75 for those paying with cash or check and $15 for qualified low-income commuters.

The transponders also work on other toll roads using the FasTrak transponder system, including 91ExpressLanes, the TollRoads in Orange County, the I-15 ExpressLanes in San Diego County and Express Lanes and bridge tolls in the Bay Area.

We’ll be writing a lot more about different aspects of the project in the coming weeks and months. There is also a lot more information on Metro’s ExpressLanes web page. Here are a few key links:

Frequently Asked Questions (English and Spanish)

Benefits to Carpoolers

ExpressLanes dynamic pricing

28 replies

  1. Why is the switch’s “First Position” in the middle, with second on the left and third on the right?

    Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to have solo driver (1) on the left, two people (2) in the middle, and three people (3) on the right?

    • Hi Tony;

      Motorcycles should keep the switch on “3” to ensure toll-free travel at all times in the ExpressLanes. In other words, put it on your ride and leave it alone.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  2. The 10 East is always bottle-necked at the 605 Freeway, this is because the carpool lane ends there and the lanes to the 605 take away from the through lanes of the freeway (been this way from years, and all the recent construction just adds to the traffic). Basically the through-lanes is 1 lane less. When carpool lanes gets built east of the 605 (which is current under construction as a CalTrans project), will the ExpressLanes be extended as well? At the very least, so that the end of the eastbound HOT lanes be after the 605 instead of before? It would relieve congestion a ton.

  3. Not sure if I like this idea or not. It creates two classes of drivers, those who can afford it and those who can’t.

    But I am curious to know where the money goes. Back into freeways, covering the costs of the transporters, or into transportation in general, where it could potentially pay for transit alternatives?

    • Hi James;

      Toll revenues are supposed to go back into transit and carpool lane improvements. It’s also worth noting that the federal grant Metro received to do the project also helped pay for new buses for the Silver Line and other feeder lines, the expanded El Monte station and improvements to the Pomona Metrolink station, among others. The idea is to use the ExpressLanes as a way to help improve transit and travel in the 10 and 110 corridors.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  4. I went to one of the open house meetings for this project last year. There are some concerns I brought up then with respect to privacy. What data is collected? Who has access to it? How is it stored? Is it stored securely? Will the police have access to it without a warrant? Will the data be used to automatically issue traffic citations when wrongdoing is detected?

    Then there’s another type of security. Will third parties be able to build equipment that can query the information on the cards and thus register your movements when you’re not on the freeway.

    If there isn’t a privacy policy in place at the start, then there isn’t likely to be any privacy.

    • Hi Mike;

      State law requires Metro to protect the privacy and private information of ExpressLanes customers — same applies to many other toll facilities in the state and many other electronic forms of commerce by the state that require private information.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  5. How would these work for say rental cars or for out-of-towners? Angelinos aren’t the only ones on using our freeways.

    Sample what if scenarios:

    1. A person living in San Diego or San Francisco visits LA and gets into the Express Lane. They don’t have a transponder; how will they be charged?

    2. A out-of-state license plate car driver (i.e. let’s say Nevada) comes into the Express Lane. How will the ExpressLanes handle license plates from outside of California?

    3. Mexican license plates? Canadian license plates? There are cars on our freeways from Baja California and British Columbia too.

    4. Rental cars? If a family from Texas arrives at LAX and rents a car at Hertz, how will they be charged for tolls?

    5. Enforcement of the “honor system” of switching the transponder to the correct position. How to deal with dishonest people who deliberately switch the position to 3+ position to save on tolls when they are actually driving solo? Again, the issue arises of the relying on the honor system.

  6. A couple of corrections Steve:

    There are two Metrolink Stations in Pomona; The station that was expanded was the Pomona (North) one on the San Bernardino line.

    “Those who currently use the carpool lanes won’t be charged a toll.” While that is technically correct, they will have to pay a deposit to get a transponder and will be fined if they enter these lanes without one. I think you need to be clearer about this. Also, you need to be clear that the transponders have to be used at least four times a month or the owner will incur an additional fee.

    And, yes, these FasTrak transponders will work on other toll facilities in California (as they have to by state law), but will LA Metro make it clear enough to those who hold current FasTrak transponders from the other facilities that they will be charged for using the Express Lanes even if they have a “carpool” because those transponders do not have a switch?

  7. Wow, Steve, your response to the motorcycle question seems pretty ridiculous to me… I don’t own a motorcycle, but it seems to me that if a motorcycle never has to pay a toll, and a motorcycle is easily recognizable as a vehicle that never has to pay a toll, that a motorcycle would not need a transponder. Coupled with the fact that motorcycles don’t really have a secure place to mount or store the transponders (and talk to people that live in areas that have a lot of toll roads or bridges–fastrak transponders are VERY frequently stolen from locked vehicles) and it just makes me wonder what the point is.

  8. @Robb

    It’s not the difference that a motorcycle is visually different from an automobile, it’s pretty much has to do with the classification of a motorcycle as being a two axle vehicle; in that light a motorcycle is essentially the same as a car.

    However, what you bring to light is a good one; LA could be repeating a similar “caught off guard” moment that occurred in San Francisco when they implemented FasTrak on their Bay Bridges several years ago: a black and white assumption that everyone owns a car or they’re too poor to own one so they take public transit, when the implementation was much more difficult than that.

    Along with the issues I mentioned, motorcycles are another example in which more clarifications are needed.
    When SF started FasTrak, the operators were inundated with calls from frustrated motorcyclists on what to do. With no SOP in place, answers varied from operator to operator from “motorcycles are not allowed on Express Lane (wrong),” to “you don’t need a transponder for motorcycles (again wrong).”

    Hopefully when LA implements toll tag ETC systems this can be avoided with more clarity.

  9. I have a few questions regarding this project, and I’d appreciate it if anyone can answer them –

    What federal funding source is paying for this project?

    Once the pilot project is over what will happen? Is there a business/operating plan, or will the HOT Lanes just desolve, or even worse turn into toll lanes?

    This is something I’m really curious about.

    • Hi Elijah,

      A big chunk of the project is being paid for with a $210-million grant from the U.S. DOT, which several years ago was offering grants to regions willing to try congestion pricing projects. At the end of the year-long trial, the data will be reviewed and a decision will be made whether to continue the project, modify it or get rid of it. Area transportation officials believe it’s worth trying — as the $210 million is being used to help expand the carpool lanes on the 10, rebuild the El Monte Station and improve Metrolink.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  10. […] The Source has revealed the answer to one of the region’s great transportation mysteries: How will the ExpressLanes project, which will give solo drivers paid access to carpool lanes on the 10 and 110, work? The answer involves the Metro ExpressLanes transponder–it will allow drivers to set the number of people in their car before they enter the high occupancy toll (aka HOT) lanes. Under the system put in place for the one year demonstration project, buses, motorcycles, vanpools, and carpools that currently use carpool lanes will not be charged a toll. Solo drivers, however, will be able to pay for the privilege of entering the open pastures of the HOT lane, for a dynamic price determined by the current conditions of the freeway. […]

    • Hi Adam;

      Low emission vehicles with stickers do not get to use the lanes for free unless they are carpooling. Reason: while electric vehicles reduce pollution, they don’t reduce congestion — and that’s the aim of this project.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  11. In the bay area, when the car pool lanes added a toll feature for single drivers, carpoolers had to do absolutely nothing…no transponder needed. It was up to enforcement to see why someone entered the lane without the transponder.

    How can Metro say with a straight face that carpoolers continue to ride free when they need an expensive piece of equipment and possibly a monthly maintenance fee?

    And why screw over the thousands and thousands of people who visit LA, and do so in carpools? Why cant a family of 7 from bakersfield use the carpool lanes anymore? They obviously wont have a transponder.

    • Just FYI: carpoolers pay bridge tolls in the Bay Area and can pay using cash or a transponder. Also, the ExpressLanes here represent a challenge as the 10 segment is free for 3+ riders in peak hours and the 110 is free for 2+ carpools at all times. Thus the transponder with the switch to help with enforcement.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  12. I have to echo the concerns of JJJJ and others. My wife and I rarely drive the 110 Freeway (less than once a month), but when we do, we’ll be in the carpool lane. With this required transponder, what used to be free is now going to have an upfront cost of $40, plus an annual cost of $36.

    It seems to me the ones who have to pay the toll (solo drivers) should be the only ones who are required to own a transponder.

  13. @ Y Fukuzawa:

    Doesn’t matter what plates one has. Use the ExpressLanes with no Transponder and you will be either sent a fine (to the registered owner) by a camera or pulled over by the CHP, plates run, ID checked for any outstanding warrants, car searched if deemed probable cause, etc., etc. In other words just like a regular traffic stop.

  14. What will be fun is when travelers/commuters from San Diego come up to L.A. with their FasTrak transponders and think they can follow the same rules here as they are supposed to there. It’s the same state, right?

    Check out:

    Under “What is FasTrak?”
    “…Carpools, vanpools, motorcycles, and permitted zero-emission vehicles can use the [Express Lanes] at no charge. Remember, if you have a FasTrak transponder in your vehicle, place it in the Mylar® bag that was provided to you when you signed up for your account so you don’t get charged for your trip if you have two or more people in your vehicle!”

  15. @Erik G.

    And that’s where the problem lies. Does Metro’s ETC system have the capability to even search license plate databases and cross reference with other agencies spanning across state or even international lines? For example can the camera even send a fine to a Maryland plate? A Baja California plate to Mexico? Or an Alberta plate to Canada? Where’s the money for that going to come from?

    In the case of rental cars, where does the fine go to? The rental car agency or the person who rented the car? Is there a system in place that if it goes to the rental car agency, that the cost of the fine will be passed along correctly to the person that rented it? Is there an option for rental car companies to place transponders on them on a per-request optional basis?

    Again, this whole thing is flawed from the start. Usually those that implement ETCs still have at least a single lane that’s still staffed for cases like these. It’s the same thing with our turnstiles, Metro only implemented an “all or nothing” solution; it’ll take TAP but won’t take paper passes. The same mistake is happening here; it’ll take FasTrak tags, but nothing else without consideration that Angelinos aren’t the only ones using our freeways.

  16. Frank M

    Steve, it’ll be greatly appreciated if you could answer Y Fukuzawa’s points on how the ExpressLanes project will collect tolls from those that don’t live in LA. I have a family living in Arizona who comes to LA frequently so it’ll be nice to know what my family can expect the next time they come and visit me. Will my family be automatically fined for going into an ExpressLane because they don’t have an RFID tag? How will this ExpressLane project work with their Arizona license plates?

    • Hi Frank;

      They will need a transponder to use the ExpressLanes. Anyone can get one, including customers of other toll roads/agencies who want the switch option if they carpool on the ExpressLanes. It is also important to note that part of the initial transponder fee is a deposit that is refundable upon return of the transponder (the rest of the fee goes to your tolls). If your relatives use the lanes often, it may be worth getting one as the lanes will hopefully move traffic better than the current carpool lanes. The 10 will now have two carpool lanes in both directions.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  17. […] The Source has revealed the answer to one of the region’s great transportation mysteries: How will the ExpressLanes project, which will give solo drivers paid access to carpool lanes on the 10 and 110, work? The answer involves the Metro ExpressLanes transponder–it will allow drivers to set the number of people in their car before they enter the high occupancy toll (aka HOT) lanes. Under the system put in place for the one year demonstration project, buses, motorcycles, vanpools, and carpools that currently use carpool lanes will not be charged a toll. Solo drivers, however, will be able to pay for the privilege of entering the open pastures of the HOT lane, for a dynamic price determined by the current conditions of the freeway. […]