A monthly toll road fee exits early

May 9, 2013 

Even infrequent toll road users need a transponder, but they'll no longer pay a monthly maintenance fee.

Metro’s board of directors, taking aim at one component of a controversial ExpressLanes pilot project, voted Thursday to scrap for six months a maintenance fee levied on infrequent users of the toll roads, Los Angeles County’s first.

The board voted 7-4 in favor of a motion by Director and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to suspend the fees in the interest of fairness. Yaroslavsky’s motion, originally introduced for consideration in January and recently amended, applies to Los Angeles County residents who make four or fewer trips in the ExpressLanes each month. The motion only applies to local residents so that commuters who live in other counties—where monthly charges continue to exist—can’t go bargain-shopping here for their FasTrak transponders.

Everyone who uses the toll roads, which are located on the 110 and 10 freeways, is still required to have a transponder and to pay tolls if they’re traveling solo in the lanes. Carpoolers (two or more on the 110 Freeway, three or more on the 10 Freeway at peak hours) don’t have to pay any tolls but still must have a transponder in their vehicle. Until now, even carpoolers had been subject to the $3 monthly fee if they used the lanes infrequently.

“I think this is an unfair fee,” Yaroslavsky said, adding that he doesn’t believe exempting infrequent L.A. County users will have much of an impact on the program’s bottom line. Still, his motion sets a six-month time limit for the monthly fee exemption, during which Metro’s staff can gather data on how it affects usage of the lanes and the overall cost of operating them.

Stephanie Wiggins, who is managing the program for Metro, said she expects the number of ExpressLanes accounts to increase now that the monthly fee has been removed, drawing in motorists who “to date haven’t opted in because they feel the $3 fee is an impediment.”

Customers can obtain a transponder online, at AAA and Metro offices, as well as at Albertsons and Costco stores. They must then deposit $40 into an account from which toll charges and fees are deducted. (Some discounts are available.)

A Metro report said the agency started assessing the monthly $3 fees on February 24 and had collected a total of $14,175 from 4,725 infrequent users as of March 31. Overall, there were 107,921 accounts in the system in March, of which 27,620 were infrequent users who live in L.A. County.

The fees haven’t been the only issue to emerge since the first ExpressLanes started operating last November. Large numbers of citations have been issued, and while minimum average speeds in the new lanes have easily met or exceeded their 45 mile per hour target, speeds in the general purpose lanes next to them have dropped—which Metro said is to be expected as motorists get used to a new program.

Supervisor and Metro Director Mark Ridley-Thomas argued that it’s premature to “tinker” with the project by dropping the maintenance fee until the pilot period is complete in 10 months.

“It’s simply too soon,” he said. “I don’t know that it warrants intervention at this point.”

He voted against the measure, along with fellow supervisors and directors Michael D. Antonovich and Gloria Molina. Also dissenting was Director John Fasana, a Duarte city councilman.

Wiggins of Metro acknowledged that the agency has received complaints about the fee, but Ridley-Thomas and Molina said their offices had not received any.

Although she voted against changing the fee, Molina signaled she has some other issues with the program, starting with the fact that she had a tough time finding a place to get a transponder. “I seem to have gone to the only Costco that doesn’t have it.”

Logistics can also be a challenge, she added. “On the 10 [Freeway]…people don’t know how to get on it and utilize it, including myself.”

Posted 4/25/13

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