Howard Gottesman jumped onto the Route 91 Express Lanes the day they opened in 1995. For a mere $2.50, the property manager and father of two could veer off one of Southern California's most congested freeways and zip home on the private new toll road that paralleled it. Some days, it nearly cut his evening commute to Corona in half.
Soon, though, the secret was out. More and more drivers filled the Express Lanes, and on some nights the drive wasn't so express. Road operators reacted by jacking up the peak-hour fees -- to $2.95, and later $4.75, then $5.50 and more. Last month, Gottesman was staggered to learn that his evening drive would now cost as much as $7.75 a day.
Too much? Maybe. Enough to send him back to the slow lanes? Never.
"It saves a lot of wear and tear on your car, and wear and tear on your mind," said the 44-year-old California native, who often drives six miles out of his way to enter the 10-mile-long Express Lanes. "It's worth more than eight dollars, my time."
As Virginia transportation officials prepare to build the region's first high-occupancy toll lanes -- known as "HOT lanes" -- on a 14-mile stretch of the Capital Beltway, the 10-year history of this first-of-its-kind highway in the Los Angeles suburbs offers Washington-area drivers a window into both the allure and drawbacks of paying one's way out of gridlock.
Costly clashes between the Express Lanes' original owners and Orange County taught planners elsewhere to limit the amount of authority they cede to private operators. And because of the public furor over the 91's constant toll increases, many new toll lanes -- including those to be built on the Beltway -- will offer a more varied pricing system based on the amount of traffic on the road.
Yet the most important lesson of these California roads -- sometimes derided as elitist, double-taxing "Lexus lanes" -- is that commuters will flock to them in large numbers, regardless of the price.
"Old theories of what people are willing to pay for a toll road are out the window," said C. Kenneth Orski, editor of the Innovative Briefs transportation newsletter and a longtime supporter of HOT lanes. "Motorists are willing to pay much higher fees than they were traditionally assumed to be willing to pay."
Transportation planners across the country have studied the 91 Express Lanes and a similar toll lane system on Interstate 15 near San Diego. Their conclusions are informing the designs of dozens of new pay-to-drive lanes now under construction or discussion -- including plans for toll lanes on the Maryland side of the Beltway, on I-270, and on I-95/395 between the District and Spotsylvania.
Virginia officials this spring signed deals with two private firms to construct the Beltway toll lanes, which could open in 2010. The plan calls for two new lanes in each direction, separated from other traffic, between Springfield and Georgetown Pike. Peak tolls would be about $5, according to preliminary estimates, and carpools of at least three people would be allowed to travel the fast lanes free.
But planners acknowledge that those terms could change. Though estimates for the proposed I-95/395 HOT lanes include $13 tolls for the entire 56-mile trip, it is projected they could eventually rise to about $17 in 2015 and $27 in 2030. And if the lanes get too crowded, the carpooling requirement might be reset to four people per car, said Gary Groat, director of project development for Fluor Virginia, which is behind both the Beltway plan and one of the I-95 proposals.
A HOT lane system opened just last month in Minneapolis; new ones are under construction in Denver and Houston; and other metropolitan areas across the country have in recent months begun discussing such projects in earnest. Maryland planners are now also talking about adding toll lanes to the Baltimore Beltway and I-95 north of Baltimore.
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.