While I was driving back to Los Angeles Saturday on the 110 freeway from a performance in Long Beach I came across something that I have never seen before; toll roads. I had never expected to see toll roads north of Orange County (or along the entire west coast for that matter) and did not initially know what to think of them. I had seen construction of “top level freeway” for years, but had always assumed that it was some futuristic, general use expansion. I was very wrong. So after getting home I decided to do some research on the matter and write about my conclusions in this blog post in conjunction with another major news story in the world of Los Angeles Transportation. Although I had never seen a toll road until two days ago, I have never felt particularly comfortable with the idea as it encompasses both a financial and moral argument. And after seeing them for the first time and doing my research I remain in the same quagmire.
The new toll road, or “Hot Lanes”, opened in early November along an eleven mile stretch of the 110 freeway (from Carson to Downtown Los Angeles). The new express lane system was constructed by annexing the two left carpool lanes on either side as well as erecting new lanes above the existing freeway on a second level. A rough estimate for the completed project was a little under $290 million while the LA Metro plans to take in about $20 million per year from the new expressway. This first piece of information immediately sparked some interest as it take years to simply break even on the project. While this may pay off in the long run, there is no guarantee that this experiment (because technically is it only a one year experiment) will last long enough to produce the desired funds. All is not lost however because these lanes can easily (if several more million is easy) be reconverted back into general use lanes. If the LA Metro was so strapped for cash, perhaps they could make people actually pay for the metro rather than going on the “Honor System”.
The second financial incentive for the express lanes is the time that will hopefully not be spent by commuters sitting on a freeway system rather than working. The toll lanes are designed to run between 45-65 mph even during pure gridlock in the adjacent lanes. This means that those who depend on the freeway as their lifeline to a paycheck will not fall victim to its unpredictability. While this may be great for the select group of people who opt to pay for the transponder and transit fees, a major selling point of the project was that it would improve traffic flow for all of the lanes. Thus far however, “traffic in the free lanes has gotten more congested.” This was clearly evident to my eyes. I cannot see how shrinking the number of available lanes would make a freeway less congested. Additionally, the only vehicles that are required to pay for access to these lanes are those with only a single passenger. So essentially, the county of Los Angeles (with substantial federal backing) put all of this time, effort, and money into a project that would only improve the driving experience of a few thousand persons.
Finally there is the more emotional and moral side not only to this project but toll roads in general. There is no question that only well off Angelinos will have the means to utilize the growing number of toll roads in the city which creates an obvious and stark reminder to this fact. Allowing the rich get their own lanes on a public road and breeze by the packed lanes of the “normal” commuter creates a sense of nobility which goes against everything California has previously held hear. I know through my own experience that the sight of such roads (especially when they towered on a level above the freeway) implies a public acknowledgment that “you are rich so you deserve to be separate from the poor folk”. I have always been a huge proponent of public transportation and this new endeavor I fear will spark greater distinctions among social and economic classes.