LA Metro Says 405 Freeway Toll Lanes Would Help With Congestion. Will Drivers Buy In?

Metro's plans to add new toll lanes in L.A. County is informed by a proven fact about congestion that has yet to be embraced by the public: adding more vehicle lanes won't fix traffic. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Los Angeles County transportation officials have approved taking a closer look at how to convert existing carpool lanes on the 405 Freeway into express lanes through the Sepulveda Pass.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board on Thursday approved a 36-month study of the concept, granting a contract worth nearly $27.5 million to WSP USA, Inc., an architectural and engineering company. WSP will conduct an environmental study, traffic study and a concept of operation report for the project, which would replace the existing High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on the 405 with ExpressLanes between the 101 and 10 freeways.

The project has $260 million in Measure M funds allotted, but Metro officials have not determined the final price tag or where they'd secure additional funds.

If this information comes as a shock to you, Metro officials and local transportation researchers have a message for you: it's old news — and good news if you hate Southern California's epic congestion.

"Voters back in 2016 approved Measure M, which calls for the construction of all these projects," said Metro spokesman Rick Jager. "They're just now coming online and everybody's like, 'Oh, my god, where did this project come from?' It was all discussed... now we're picking up the pieces and rolling."

Metro's work to add new toll lanes in L.A. County is informed by a proven fact about congestion that has yet to be embraced by the public: adding more vehicle lanes is not a cure for traffic.

"We're not going to be able to build our way out of congestion in L.A. County," said Shahrzad Amiri, who runs Metro's Congestion Reduction Program. "On the freeway system, what we need to do is better manage congestion."

On the 405, that would mean charging certain drivers to use those planned toll lanes at certain times, just as the existing ExpressLanes on portions of the 10 and 110 freeways do now.

To use those lanes legally, drivers purchase a transponder for about $40 (and also have to pay a $1/month maintainence fee), which is mounted on their windshield and tracked along their route. Metro offers discounts for its transponder for lower-income drivers and waives that monthly $1 fee for those who qualify for the program.

Traffic flows east on the 10 Freeway down FasTrak express lanes, left, and regular lanes in Los Angeles on Sept. 18, 2019. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Drivers are charged per mile according to Metro's "demand-based pricing," which varies based on real-time traffic conditions. People driving alone are charged 25 cents per mile at minimum, and that price increases with demand. Vehicles with two or more occupants can drive free on the 110 (so long as they have that transponder), but to take a toll-free trip on the 10 during peak hours, three or more people have to be in the vehicle. Motorcyclists get to use the lane for free and don't need a transponder.

"Pricing becomes an incentive or disincentive for you to make a decision. Do you need to be on the road, for instance, definitely at the peak hour, or can you go a little later?" Amiri said. "Some people have a little bit more flexibility in choosing when to travel than others."

The 405 project is one of eight ExpressLane projects Metro aims to complete by 2027.

One thing the 36-month study will look at is how much space Metro has to work with on the 405. As the technology exists today, adding toll lane infrastructure means taking up a bit more of the freeway's right-of-way, though Amiri said emerging tech in the next several years could affect the ultimate design.

VICTIM OF ITS OWN SUCCESS?

You may be asking: why is Metro taking this route? For the answer, just look around as you crawl along any one of SoCal's clogged freeways.

In a 2017 report on its ExpressLanes program, Metro officials said "the HOV system has been a victim of its own success," due both to high demand and legislation that allows Clean Air Vehicles (CAVs) like hybrid and electric cars to travel in HOV lanes even if they're driving solo (Metro recently started charging CAVs at a discounted rate).

Many of L.A. County's HOV lanes are now just as congested as the rest of the freeway, Metro officials said in the report, saying some lanes no longer meet federal standards for traffic flow. Basically, "if average traffic speeds during the morning or evening weekday peak commute period fall below 45 miles per hour ... more than two weekdays each month in a six month period," the HOV lane is not working as intended, the report explained.

According to Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning at UCLA's Luskin School, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Metro plans to add more toll lanes, though "it may be surprising that it took us so long to do it," given the success of Metro's current ExpressLanes.

"People use them and they generate a lot of money for Metro," Manville said. "It's really one of Metro's most successful programs, honestly, and so we should not be surprised or upset that they want to expand it."

Manville said changing SoCal's deeply ingrained view of roads as "exalted and unique" will continue to be a challenge as Metro works to get more drivers to buy in to the concept — literally. Part of that disconnect is the argument that we already pay to use the roads via the state gas tax and vehicle registration fees.

"Yes, we pay taxes right now to provide the roads, but congestion is not a problem of providing roads — it's a problem of allocating the roads once you have provided them," Manville said. "Saying that because we've already paid to bring the road into existence, we shouldn't use prices to manage it is sort of like saying, once you have paid to build a house, you shouldn't be able to sell it at a price."

The toll lane project isn't the only plan Metro is working on to tackle congestion in the Sepulveda Pass. The agency is also studying how to build a rail line through the corridor that could take commuters from the San Fernando Valley to the West L.A. in under 20 minutes.

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UPDATES:

Friday, Dec. 6, 8:40 a.m.: This article was updated with more information on Metro's ExpressLanes program and additional transit projects through the Sepulveda Pass.

This article was originally published at 5:40 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5.