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Lessons of Calif.'s Toll Lanes

Afternoon commuters travel on Route 91 Express Lanes in Orange County, Calif. Similar toll lanes are planned for the Capital Beltway in Virginia.
Afternoon commuters travel on Route 91 Express Lanes in Orange County, Calif. Similar toll lanes are planned for the Capital Beltway in Virginia. (By Glenn Koenig -- Los Angeles Times)

Part of the reason HOT lanes are gaining in popularity, said Robert W. Poole Jr., director of transportation studies for the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit libertarian group, is that the California lanes offer a decade-long track record.

"They're considered a success," Poole said, "and we really don't have many of those in transportation."

There have been some bumps in the road, however. The private firm that built the Express Lanes through the median of Route 91 -- the primary link between booming Orange County and the fast-growing but cheaper suburbs of Riverside County -- negotiated a "non-compete" clause in its original contract that barred local governments from making any improvements on the free lanes that might steal customers from the four-lane toll road.

Commuters eventually balked, though, and Orange County ended up buying out the firm for $207.5 million in 2002, allowing it to finally add some long-awaited lanes to the freeway.

The county takeover also came with a promise -- written into the state legislation that authorized it -- that tolls would be lowered. And indeed, when the Orange County Transportation Authority first took control, it opened the toll lanes free of charge for cars with three or more travelers.

But the tolls kept rising. And when the HOV-3 option caused revenue to drop, OCTA started charging carpoolers half-price during busy hours.

OCTA spokesman Ted Nguyen said the price increases are a necessary part of the agency's strategy to keep traffic moving smoothly on the Express Lanes. If too many cars are filling the toll road, it seems fair to raise the tolls to a level that will thin the crowd, he explained.

"We found that when they pay a price, people want a predictably smooth ride," he said. "Our goal is to maximize the number of people through the 91 corridor." Most of the price hikes have been imposed on the afternoon Orange County to Riverside County traffic, which just hit the maximum of $7.75 a trip. Traveling the roads at less busy times can still cost less than $2.

But OCTA officials are considering a change to a more flexible pricing system -- one planned for the Virginia Beltway as well -- in which sensors implanted in the roads would measure traffic levels minute to minute and set tolls accordingly. The I-15 toll lane, which operates under a similar system, has reduced commuter complaints.

But Germaine Ewing still finds herself feeling cheated when traffic slows to a crawl on her commute on the toll roads from her Newport Beach office to her Corona home. "I feel like, okay, if the Express Lane is moving slower, I should be reimbursed," said the 42-year-old manager at a semiconductor company. Her husband now drives miles out of his way to avoid the heavy tolls, she said.

Jeff Miller, a Corona city councilman who hears these complaints, said the shortcoming of toll lane systems is that transportation planners contending with major traffic problems are tempted to simply tinker with prices rather than look for more lasting solutions.

"We need to be more focused on doing capacity improvements on the free lanes before you go back and start hitting people's pocketbooks," he said.

For all the complaints, though, ridership on the Express Lanes has surged -- from 10 million trips in 2003 to 11.2 million last year. Poole surmises that commuters view the tolls as "congestion insurance" -- costly, but essential to keep their lives from being lost in traffic.

"I don't see any way around it," said Crystal Lee, a Riverside accountant and mother of two. Her ride home on the Express Lanes saves her 10 to 30 minutes, she estimates, and guarantees she'll be home in time to get her daughter to dance class.

"I need the time," she said, "more than the money."

Ginsberg reported from Washington.

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