Congestion pricing - toll lanes - come to LA freeways

fastrak550-zevweb.jpgThis Saturday, the HOV lanes on the Harbor Freeway south of downtown convert to HOT lanes — meaning if you are a solo driver, you can pay to drive with the carpools. That may not be so controversial, but it means that everyone who drives in the 110 lanes, carpoolers included, have to pay $40 plus $3 a month for a FasTrak transponder. Solo drivers will be billed by the mile, at a variable rate that will depend on the traffic demand. The Express Lanes are a one-year experiment sponsored by a federal grant and administered by Metro, and expands next year to the San Bernardino Freeway diamond lane on the I-10 between downtown and El Monte.

I talk about the reason for the experiment and the potential for controversy with Steve Chiotakis tonight on the weekly LA Observed segment on KCRW. We're on the air at 6:44 p.m. and online at

It gets a little complicated. Here are highlights from a couple of online stories about the new lanes. From ZevWeb:

Everybody who wants to use the express lanes needs to get a transponder for their vehicle and establish an account, with an initial deposit of $40. Everyone also will pay a $3 monthly maintenance fee, in addition to fares charged for driving in the lanes, which will vary depending on how heavy the traffic is. The more congested, the higher the price per mile. Fees range from 25-cents to $1.40 per mile.

Real-time pricing will be displayed on electronic signs along the freeway, and sensors will communicate with on-board transponders to deduct fares automatically from the pre-paid account.

Now—stay with us—here’s some of the fine print.

Carpoolers and motorcyclists will still be able to use the lanes without paying fares. But to do so, they’ll need to open an account and get a transponder, which costs money. (Applicants can, however, apply for an income-based “equity plan,” which reduces the initial deposit to $15 and waives the monthly fee for those who qualify.)

The system is based on the transponders’ ability to read how many people are traveling in a vehicle. So drivers will have to set the switch on their transponders to 1, 2 or 3—indicating how many people are onboard. If it’s set to “1,” the fares for solo drivers will be triggered; otherwise, it’s a free ride for carpoolers.

Metro's PR blog, The Source, amplifies on the technology aspects.

The transponder is a small battery-powered radio frequency identification unit that transmits radio signals. Stored in the transponder is basic account information, including an identification number.

When the transponder passes under the overhead L-shaped antennas along the ExpressLanes, it communicates the account ID to the antennas. The antennas respond by messaging that information to a computer that calculates the toll rate for the individual commuter.

The antennas track the vehicle and transmit its path to a computer that contains individual vehicle accounts. After a vehicle exits the ExpressLanes, the antennas tell the computer that the vehicle is gone, and the account is charged, if necessary. (Trips for eligible carpools, vanpools and motorcycles are free.)

Sensors measure congestion and transmit the speed of traffic flow in the ExpressLanes to a computer network. The computer network manages capacity in the lanes by using an algorithm to adjust the toll, based on traffic conditions. The tolls will range from 25 cents per mile to a maximum of $1.40 per mile. The more traffic in the ExpressLanes, the higher the toll assessed. The less traffic in the ExpressLanes, the lower the toll. However, the toll amount is locked in once the vehicle is in the ExpressLanes.

If speeds fall below 45 mph for more than 10 minutes, the ExpressLanes signs alert solo drivers to not enter the ExpressLanes until speeds climb back to 45 mph or faster. However, solo drivers already with a trip in progress in the ExpressLanes will be allowed to complete their trip. This helps ensure smoother flowing traffic in the ExpressLanes for all who use them.

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