Things Are Getting HOT on Los Angeles Freeways

On Saturday November 10, the California Department of Transportation (“Caltrans”) and Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (“MTA”) converted the I-110 Harbor Transitway lanes (“ExpressLanes”) from High Occupancy Vehicle (“HOV”) or carpool lanes to High Occupancy Toll (“HOT”) lanes.  The ExpressLanes, extending from Harbor Gateway Transit Center to Adams Boulevard, are part of a one-year demonstration program that seeks to introduce congestion pricing to the I-110 freeway, and later the I-10 freeway.  This conversion follows a growing trend in California, as well as many other states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Florida and Colorado, in implementing HOT lanes to alleviate high congestion corridors.

The ExpressLanes are equipped with 14 entry and exit points to the general purpose lanes, allowing single-occupancy drivers to access carpool lanes by paying a toll that fluctuates based on current traffic levels.  Each driver intending to utilize the new HOT lanes must purchase a transponder that will charge tolls electronically. 

With expected tolls between $0.25 and $1.40 per mile, aggregate gross revenues from the I-110 and later I-10 are projected at approximately $20 million per year.  Per its application to the US Department of Transportation for its grant to develop through the Congestion-Reduction Demonstration Initiatives Program, MTA proposes to use excess toll revenues to subsidize transit service as an alternative to drive alone transportation. 

The demonstration program comes 18 years after Geoff Yarema, Nossaman LLP partner and former Infrastructure Practice Group Chair, proposed essentially this same innovation for the I-110 in a 1994 article entitled “Trying Out Congestion Pricing in Los Angeles: A Low-Risk Proposal for the Harbor Freeway Transitway.”  Citing authority from sources such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Science Foundation, Mr. Yarema touted the benefits of pricing roadway capacity according to demand, drawing parallels with pricing models for electrical and telephone services.  This conversion will be the first example of roadway pricing in the County of Los Angeles.

I-395 HOT Lanes Project Stymied by Arlington Lawsuit

Arlington County is seeking to delay (or possibly derail) a project designed to ease congestion and add new lanes to Northern Virginia’s clogged 95/395 corridor.  Arlington has challenged the Categorical Exclusion (CE) granted by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which allowed the project to move forward without a full environmental analysis.

Arlington is concerned that the new lanes will “increase congestion throughout the corridor, and lengthen travel times, especially for transit.”  Buses, carpools (HOV-3), motorcycles and emergency vehicles will have free access to HOT lanes.

Drivers with fewer than three occupants will be required to pay to access the lanes.  Fully electronic tolling on the HOT lanes will allow customers to pay tolls with E-ZPass - eliminating the need for toll booths.

Tolls will rise with congestion, following a strategy known as “congestion pricing” that has been embraced with great success in San Diego and Orange County.  As the price goes up more people exit the lanes, maintaining free flow of traffic.

Fluor-Transurban, Virginia’s private sector partner charged with building and managing the new lanes, is no stranger to set-backs. Fluor has been doggedly pursuing HOT Lanes in Virginia since 2002.

Northern Virginia’s congestion woes are a serious concern - only Los Angelinos lose more time in traffic each year, according to the Texas Transportation Institute’s 2009 Urban Mobility Report. This lawsuit will likely focus pressure on the I-495 HOT Lanes project to prove the viability of the congestion pricing model for the Washington Metro Area.