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Why your electric vehicle's freebie drives in LA toll lanes are numbered

FILE: The Metro ExpressLane on the Interstate 10 in San Gabriel Valley.
FILE: The Metro ExpressLane on the Interstate 10 in San Gabriel Valley.
Matt Johnson via Flickr Creative Commons

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Drivers of electric vehicles will no longer get a free ride in Los Angeles County toll lanes.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board of directors voted last week to begin charging solo drivers of clean vehicles who had been using the lanes without charge. Under the new policy, clean air vehicles will be offered a 15 percent discount on solo driver tolls in the L.A. ExpressLanes.

The move to require payment from electric vehicles is aimed at addressing crowding and slowdowns in the lanes. The slowdowns threaten federal highway dollars and nullify the benefits the lanes were intended to provide.

Board debate over the change for electric vehicles brought to light a clash of policies over the purpose of managed lanes, including those with tolls and for high occupancy vehicles. Should they be used to control freeway congestion or encourage greener commuting? The two goals aren't perfectly aligned.

How did we get here?

When carpool lanes began proliferating in the '70s and '80s, the aim was to both reduce congestion and limit pollution, both achievable with carpooling. When clean vehicles were introduced, they were also allowed to use carpool lanes to achieve state goals for emissions reductions, although they don't necessarily reduce the number of cars on the road.

But toll lanes were established differently under a federal program specifically to manage congestion, using the economic principle of supply and demand. If demand increased, then the price could be raised to reduce demand.

Metro has operated the tolled ExpressLanes in L.A. County on sections of Interstate 110 since 2012 and the Interstate 10 since 2014. The tolls vary between 35 cents and $2 per mile, depending on the amount of congestion in the lanes.

Just as with the carpool lanes, clean air vehicles carrying a state-issued decal were allowed to use the toll lanes for free. It turns out, that policy can conflict with the concept of managed toll lanes.

"The idea of managed lanes is to keep enough people out of them so that they actually carry more cars," said Juan Matute, the associate director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies. 

In the case of carpool lanes, that's achieved with requirements for occupancy and fuel type. But in the case of toll lanes, which any car can enter, that's achieved with prices.

The key, said Matute, is charging just enough to deter some drivers from wanting to use the lanes so that traffic continues to flow, which increases the capacity of the lane. But no-charge electric vehicles throw a wrench into the workings of toll lanes.

"The more cars that are allowed to access the lane for free, the less control they have over congestion," said Matute of Metro officials. Because pricing no longer works to manage demand, congestion increases for everyone. 

What's the purpose of HOV lanes and toll lanes?

The idea of demand-based pricing on roads in L.A. County is new.

Most drivers are more familiar with high occupancy vehicle lanes, which have been around California in some form since the '70s. These allow carpooling vehicles, usually with two or more people, to access a special lane as an incentive for combining car trips with others, thus reducing congestion and lowering pollution. 

California also set a goal of having 1.5 million electric vehicles on the road by 2025 and encouraged drivers to buy the EVs. As incentives, the clean air vehicles could use HOV lanes, and in the case of L.A. County, the toll lanes for free — even if the driver was alone.

But as Metro staff pointed out, solo drivers in clean air vehicles contribute just as much to congestion and lane delays as do lone drivers in more polluting vehicles.

The  transit agency reported that the number of electric vehicles using the toll lanes during peak hours had doubled since 2016 to 6 percent of all traffic. If the toll lane volume were to drop by 5 percent, traffic would speed up and travel times would decrease by as much as 50 percent during peak hours, Metro's staff estimated.

Traffic speeds are important because the federal government has set standards that must be met to qualify for federal highway funds. Both HOV lanes and toll lanes in L.A. County must maintain speeds of at least 45 mph during rush hour to keep them free flowing and meet the requirements.

Two-thirds of the county's HOV lanes are considered "degraded" and fail to make the standard. When that happens, public agencies must come up with a plan to restore the mandated traffic speeds in the lanes or risk losing some federal funding.

Metro's way to correct the overcrowding in the toll lanes is to ban free use for solo EV drivers, although they will still be offered the toll discount. The change will be phased in over several months following a public outreach campaign to alert drivers.

The agency is also developing a system of automated enforcement cameras to catch drivers who cheat the system, which officials say will be installed this summer. About 25 percent of lane users avoid paying by intentionally or erroneously switching their transponder to carpool status, according to the agency.

If those approaches don't work, watch out for even higher toll prices and more carpool passengers required to drive for free. Metro is already studying proposals to allow only buses and registered van pools to ride for free in the I-10 toll lane and upping carpool requirements to three passengers in other lanes.