Entering Downtown Los Angeles on the 110 Freeway.
Briles Takes Pictures / Flickr

In Los Angeles, the hidden toll of driving on the city’s congested highways has traditionally been time spent in traffic. Now, a new congestion-pricing pilot program implemented on November 10 allows single occupancy vehicles to pay a toll and drive in carpool lanes. Already, cars are zooming along at average speeds of 60 miles per hour during rush hour.

LA’s congestion-pricing program, called Metro ExpressLanes, was made possible by political gridlock in the New York State Assembly over congestion pricing, after New York City was awarded grant money to implement a system in 2007. The city was forced to return the funds, which were then made available to other cities.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spearheaded the effort for his city to receive a $210 million grant, to retrofit, into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on two highways, 110 and 10, leading into downtown.

Map shows the extents of congestion pricing on Interstates 10 and 110.
Courtesy METRO

To participate in ExpressLanes, motorists may purchase a transponder that communicates with the electronic tolling system, and pay a sliding fee ranging from 25 cents to $1.40 per mile, depending on congestion levels. Similar systems are already operating in San Diego and along a 10-mile route in Orange County.

“We wanted to explore innovative ways of funding transportation projects,” said Deputy Mayor for Transportation Borja Leon. Leon said the system’s low risk and side benefits of improved air quality and job creation helped move it forward.

The California State Legislature approved a one-year pilot program to evaluate the effects of congestion pricing on traffic in LA, setting benchmarks for speed, congestion, and air quality. So far, the first 11-mile route along Interstate 110 has exceeded expectations.

In the program’s first weeks, up to 1,300 vehicles per hour have been using the new HOT lanes, higher than the anticipated 700 per hour, with no adverse effects. Metro spokesperson Rick Jager said average speeds in the HOT lanes are around 60 mph, significantly higher than the average speeds of 20 to 25 mph in the nontolled lanes. Should traffic speeds in the HOT lanes fall below 45 mph, no new vehicles will be permitted to enter until the congestion clears. So far, speeds have not yet fallen below that threshold, Jager said.

A second, 14-mile route stretching east from downtown to the 605 along Interstate 10 will open early next year. Leon said that if the pilot proves successful, the city may expand the program to other highways, including the notoriously congested Interstate 405.

ExpressLanes is estimated to generate $18 million to $20 million annually, with a projected $10 million in post-operational revenues going to fund mass transit along the corridors.