A new era in Los Angeles commuting is about to start, with Metro's ExpressLanes expected to open at 10 p.m. Saturday. Janet Zappala reports for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on Nov. 10, 2012.
UPDATE: Metro reports that the ExpressLanes are expected to open at 10 p.m. Satuday.
Los Angeles County will get its first-ever toll lanes – which will let solo drivers pay to travel alongside carpool vehicles – when Metro this weekend opens ExpressLanes on the Harbor (110) Freeway south of downtown.
Two lanes on each side of the freeway will run for 11 miles from near Adams Boulevard to the Artesia Transit Center in the Torrance area (see map below).
It's a stretch of freeway that is often clogged with commuter traffic between downtown and the South Bay, and transportation officials hope the complicated new system will ease the flow.
But the ExpressLanes may present a bit of a culture shock in car-centric Southern California, where the region's only toll road is in southern Orange County. And so-called "congestion pricing," which allows single drivers to pay more for a faster ride during heavier traffic, will dramatically alter traffic flow on the 110.
"We hope it changes commuter behavior in terms of getting people to really plan their trip before they start out," said Rick Jager, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Jager said the agency is encouraged that more than 30,000 drivers have already ordered transponders needed to enter the lanes, but he acknowledged that some motorists are resistant to the project.
"People hate change. It will absolutely be a learning curve. It will not be an overnight success," Jager said. "That's why it's a demonstration program. We ask for the public's patience."
Because of the rain this week, it's not clear if the lanes will open Saturday morning, evening or early Sunday. The overhead freeway signs announcing the lanes remain covered up – and lane closures needed to unveil the signs are limited by Caltrans during inclement weather, Jager said.
The one-year pilot project converts existing carpool lanes into high-occupancy toll lanes – or HOT lanes. It's funded by a $210 million federal transportation grant and $80 million from Metro.
Solo drivers may use the lanes but will have to pay a toll – from 25 cents to $1.40 per mile, with motorists paying more when traffic is heavier.
Carpoolers and motorcyclists can use the lanes for free, but all drivers must get a new switchable FasTrak transponder, shown at right, to use the lanes.
When traffic speeds fall below 45 mph for more than 10 minutes in the ExpressLanes, overhead signs will state "HOV Only," alerting solo drivers not to enter the restricted lanes, according Metro's The Source blog.
To obtain a transponder, drivers have to pay a $40 deposit that will go toward future tolls. They'll be billed a $3 monthly fee plus the cost of their tolls. Lower-income drivers can qualify for an "equity plan" that requires a $15 deposit and waives monthly fees.
There are several ways to open an account:
Violators who are caught in lanes without a transponder by the California Highway Patrol could be issued a $341 ticket, Jager said. Cameras will take pictures of vehicle license plates for cars that don't have transponders, and the owner will be sent a bill, which could result in fines if not paid.
The transponder can be switched to signify one, two, or three or more occupants in the vehicle. It transmits a signal to an antenna above lanes, and the car is then tracked. Accounts are billed for miles driven.
In late January or early February, the San Bernardino (10) Freeway is also slated to get 14 miles of ExpressLanes from downtown east nearly to the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway. On that freeway, carpool lanes will require three vehicle occupants during peak times in order to be free.
With the purchase of 59 more CNG-fueled buses and an expanded vanpool program, the projects have also funded increased public transit along the 110 and 10 corridors, Jager said. Revenues from the tolls must be returned to the two transportation corridors, under state law, he said.
After the one-year pilot period is over, the state legislature could give Metro permission to continue the project. Metro will have to prove in a state-mandated detailed report that the project successfully improved traffic flow and increased carpooling and public transit usage, Jager said.