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
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
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
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)
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
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
Unlike their California counterparts, Maryland transportation
officials are not wedded to the idea of keeping an advantage
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
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
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,"
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.