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Drivers fill the 110 freeway during afternoon rush-hour on January 9, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. In a reversal of opinion held eight months ago, Los Angeles County transportation officials this week announced a controversial plan to set up rush-hour toll lanes on local freeways by spring 2009. Officials hope to win $648 million in federal grant moneys for the toll lanes and various transportation fixes after missing out on more than $1 billion in 2007 for not backing the conversions. The first phase will convert car pool lanes to toll lanes on 85 miles of the 110, 210, and 10 freeways. The second phase will add build on the 10 and 210, as well as the 60, east from Los Angeles to San Bernardino County line. Los Angeles has historically resisted toll roads, opting to use road taxes instead to maintain freeways and keep them available for drivers of all income levels.
Confused about how to use the new ExpressLanes on the 110 Harbor Freeway?
Now is a good time to get up to speed.
Next week, Metro plans to start issuing fines to motorists who misuse ExpressLanes on the 11-mile stretch of the 110 between downtown and Gardena.
Since Metro opened carpool lanes on Nov. 10 to solo drivers willing to pay a toll, the agency has issued more than 12,000 citations.
"I don't get it," said Rubia Serrano, a gas station manager from Compton. "That same day we got the ticket, we were three people in the car."
What Serrano didn't realize is that while carpoolers ride in the ExpressLanes for free, they need to first register for the program.
The device is available online or in person at Metro locations and stores like Albertsons.
Drivers have to put down a $40 dollar to open an account, and low-income drivers are eligible for a discount.
If you’ve received a citation in the mail – don’t panic. Metro is asking motorists to pay the tolls they owe and to open an account with the agency. That gets you a transponder that carpoolers and solo drivers alike need to display in their dashboard if they want to use the ExpressLanes.
But beginning Dec. 10, you could face fines if you drive in an ExpressLane without a transponder.
Metro gives you five days to pay tolls you skipped. Miss that deadline and you get dinged with a $25 penalty. Miss that deadline and get another $30 fine.
You could also get penalized for not using the transponder correctly. Drivers must manually switch the transponder from “1,” meaning a solo driver, or “2” or “3” for carpool. That setting determines whether or not you have to pay a toll.
If the California Highway Patrol catches motorists traveling without a transponder or trying to get out of paying tolls, fine can go up to $400.
How will they know? Sgt. Terry Liu said that officers will be reading pole lights that flash a certain color when motors drive by the freeway’s sensors. For instance, a white light means that the transponder was set to carpool.
“If an officer comes up next to your vehicle and notices there’s only one person in the vehicle, you’re in violation,” Liu said. “That’s when the officer would take enforcement action.”
The opening of the 110 ExpressLanes is a year-long demonstration project, part of a $290 million traffic project largely funded by federal grant money. It includes the addition of nearly 60 buses to Metro's fleet. Also, carpool lanes on Route 10 will be converted into ExpressLanes in late January, or early February.
Despite all the confusion on the 110, the new lanes already have a lot of fans. Drivers like Melanie Barr, a nurse from Carson, expect to shave significant time off their commutes.
"It usually takes me about an hour from Carson to get to Koreatown," said Barr. "Hopefully this will cut it down by like 10, 15 minutes."
She's one of 60,000 people who've opened Express accounts in the last several weeks. Metro expects about 100,000 people will sign onto the program.
People who study traffic for a living are following the 110 project closely.
"We experts have been advocating for this in the order of 50 years. The idea of using pricing to manage congestion" said Genevieve Giuliano, director of the National Center for Metropolitan Transportation Research at the University of Southern California.
"If we succeed in increasing the number of people being served in the corridors,” Giuliano said, “then we will have demonstrated that travelers are better off. If the lanes stays empty, it's going to be a problem."
There has been extensive media coverage about these new lanes. The public got the message during 400 community meetings held by Metro to explain how the lanes would work. For months, electronic signs along the 110 warned drivers the new lanes were coming.
But paying to drive on the freeway is a foreign concept to many Southern Californians
"Wow. That's far out. I didn't know anything about that," said Brian Duncan, a Pasadena resident. "Driving on a freeway, it's supposed to be a free experience, you know?"
Metro may seem like its facing an uphill battle to educate drivers, but spokesman Rick Jager says it'll just take some getting used to.
"This is brand new for LA, we've never tried anything like this," said Jager. "So this is going to be a learning curve."
Metro expects it will take time for drivers to get up to speed.
Rick Jager says traffic may get worse on the 110 before it gets better.
"We figure probably two, three months into it, we will start noticing some relief in the mixed-flow lanes as people get more used to the idea that they can jump into those ExpressLanes for a toll," Jager said.