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Paying the price for HOV lane – and loving it

Los Angeles Times
SAN DIEGO - Smith Charlotte is living her life in the fast lane, and she loves it.

Her extended family drives about 20 vehicles – each equipped with a cigarette-case-size transponder that lets them use the express toll lanes along heavily traveled Interstate 15 north of this Southern California city.

On many days, the Chula Vista resident pays as much as $4 each way - deducted from her account each time the transponder beeps - to zip along the center lanes while motorists in the free lanes are at a crawl.

"It's a must," Charlotte says.

If Maryland transportation officials' dreams come true, commuters in the Washington and Baltimore areas will have a similar choice in a few years. They frequently point to San Diego's FasTrak system as a model for the use of toll lanes to relieve traffic congestion.

While San Diego transportation officials call FasTrak a success, the system is far from perfect. At times, officials admit, even the FasTrak lanes slow to a crawl. And where Maryland officials advocate toll lanes as a way to pay for new highway lanes, California officials say their system isn't set up to finance road construction.

Originally derided by critics as "Lexus lanes" for the affluent, toll lanes appear to have won wide acceptance in San Diego and other places around the country. But much of their success here is the result of local conditions and more modest expectations than those raised by Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan and his aides.

The 8-mile stretch of I-15 has two toll lanes and extends from the northern fringe of San Diego to the northern suburb of Poway. Plans call for two more toll lanes in the center of the highway and a 12-mile extension to Escondido.

The toll lanes were built as high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and still serve that purpose. Car-poolers, defined as drivers with one or more passengers, still get to use the express lanes free. (Drivers who use the FasTrak system with neither a passenger nor a transponder risk fines of $271 to $341.)

Ray Traynor, senior project manager for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), said that in the mid-1990s, the mayor of Poway began to seek ways to divert traffic to underused HOV lanes.

Traynor said SANDAG and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) received federal funding for a demonstration project under which excess capacity in the HOV lanes would be sold to solo drivers willing to pay a toll. He said 75 percent of the vehicles in the lanes still ride free as HOVs, while 25 percent pay toll.

The tollbooth-free system requires users to equip their cars with a transponder that sends a signal to a collection device mounted on an overhead sign about two miles from the southern entrance to the FasTrak lanes. The signal debits the driver's prepaid account by the amount of the toll, which varies with the amount of congestion in the high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes.

Maryland Transportation Department officials have been dazzled by the high-tech efficiency of the system and attracted by its voluntary approach. Where former Gov. Parris N. Glendening scorned the concept, the Ehrlich administration has embraced its market-based logic.

Flanagan frequently defends the HOT lane concept against the charge of elitism by using the example of a parent rushing to pick up a child from day care by a deadline after which financial penalties kick in.

Officials here use the same example. They say that a middle-class parent living in Escondido or Rancho Bernardo might find it a bargain to pay $4 to save 20 minutes on I-15 rather than pay $20 in late charges.

"No matter what income bracket they're in, they still use it," said Caltrans project manager Lynn Barton.

Merits and pitfalls
But FasTrak doesn't always work. On most Friday evenings, when tolls are the highest, HOT lanes can become as badly frozen as free lanes - especially at the northern end, where six lanes merge into four. There are no refunds for the driver who pays a hefty toll and ends up in a traffic jam anyway.

"It's terrible on Fridays," said Charlotte, who says the service is "great" on other days.

Contrary to a belief common among users, the system is not based on the level of traffic in the four free lanes that parallel FasTrak lanes on either side, Barton said, but in the toll lanes. It is a crucial distinction for sophisticated users of the system, because when the toll rises much above $4 - the maximum is $8 - it's telling drivers to stay away.

Several drives up and down I-15 showed the merits and pitfalls of FasTrak.

Last Friday afternoon, a vehicle entering the northbound stretch paid $1 at 3:13 p.m. and got a good deal. The car sailed along at 70 mph while early rush hour traffic in the free lanes slowed to about 30 mph.

But a day earlier, between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., users of the free lanes had laughing rights. Northbound traffic moved just as briskly as in the toll lanes as far as Poway, and FasTrak users got just as jammed up as the free riders when the lanes merged.

At nonpeak times, the toll drops to as little as 50 cents, but the driver who pays that may get little in return. Traffic in the free lanes often runs just as well.

Fares Ibrahim, operations manager for the company that operates the transponder system for SANDAG, said drivers are learning to use the system strategically. They're learning, for instance, that a $6 toll means they can expect congestion in the HOT lanes but that $3 signals that FasTrak is a good deal.

Motorists along Interstate 270 in Montgomery County might someday be learning the same lessons. Like I-15, I-270 has HOV lanes with unused capacity that could be converted to toll lanes.

Unlike their California counterparts, Maryland transportation officials are not wedded to the idea of keeping an advantage for car-poolers.

Under his "preliminary" concept, Flanagan said, car-poolers would pay the same as solo drivers where new lanes are built. And while details are under study, he offers no guarantees that car-poolers in the I-270 HOV lanes could continue to use them for free.

The other highways being considered for HOT lanes – the Washington and Baltimore beltways and Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore - do not have HOV lanes to convert.

Like the San Diego highway, that stretch of I-95 has ample room for expansion. The Beltways, where development in many cases comes right to the edge of the road, pose more difficult challenges.

Where California could create the San Diego HOT lanes without taking anything away from drivers who don't want to pay, Maryland officials are talking about converting one Beltway lane in each direction to a toll lane. Preliminary plans call for three free lanes and two express lanes - one new, one converted - in each direction. Raising revenue
Another difference between the San Diego and Maryland concepts is that California officials did not move to toll lanes expecting to raise much revenue. They say that their primary goal was reducing congestion.

Traynor said the FasTrak lanes now yield about $2.2 million in annual collections - enough to run the program and buy two Rapid Transit buses for the I-15 route, but not enough to float bonds to build new lanes, as Maryland is planning.
Edward Sullivan, a professor of civil engineering at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, said a state could set up toll lanes in a way that puts more emphasis on raising revenue for infrastructure. But he cautioned that there are limits to how much such systems can take in.

"It's not a cash cow in the sense that we can go around and fully fund highway projects through this mechanism," he said.

Flanagan said he's confident that bonds backed by toll lane revenue can provide 50 percent to 80 percent of the money needed to build the new lanes because traffic is more congested in Maryland than in San Diego.

"There's going to be more pent-up demand," he said.

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