HOT lanes are not a solution to traffic woes

A gallon of regular unleaded is at virtually $4 and oil is trading around $120 a barrel.  Tack onto that the implementation of the Metro ExpressLanes project by the end of this year, and Trojan commuters — along with all Angelenos — are facing the sobering prospect of a very expensive trip down the freeway.

The ExpressLanes project is a one-year pilot program that will shut down the high occupancy vehicle lanes on both the I-10 and I-110 Freeways, replacing them with high occupancy tolled lanes.  Access to the lanes will be based not on occupancy, as with the HOV lanes, but on the payment of a toll.

The project will replicate what is currently done on the 91 Express Lanes in Orange County, offering drivers an opportunity to pay a toll to escape congestion in the adjacent lanes.

Carpoolers will, however, still be able to access the HOT lanes free of charge at all times on the I-110, but only during off-peak hours on the I-10.

But, despite the appeal to consumers, HOT lanes will not reduce congestion in the long-term.

The HOT lanes will be dynamically priced to reflect real-time congestion; prices rise as HOT lanes fill up and fall as they empty out. Pricing is set to ensure traffic within HOT lanes is moving at 45 miles per hour or faster, guaranteeing HOT customers get what they pay for.

So why would the feds fund a Demonstration Project on two of the area’s busiest freeways?  Metro has stated the goal of the project is to facilitate “reduced congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, increased travel time savings, and better trip reliability.”

Charging admission for faster travel times in one HOT lane would pull, at first, a few vehicles out of the “free” traffic flow — but they would quickly be replaced by other vehicles.  Such an effect is well documented by transportation planners and economists.

Overall demand for freeways vastly exceeds supply. Raising the access price of just one lane — and on only two freeways at that — will not significantly tamp down demand to meet supply.

Even if the pilot project generates major revenue and is turned into a permanent program so that every freeway in Los Angeles has a HOT lane, the story remains the same.

If nothing else, this project indicates just how financially strapped both Metro and Caltrans are; charging for HOT access is both less-regressive and more appropriate way of funding freeway improvements than a sales tax.

But it won’t solve the traffic problem. The only real solution to congestion in Los Angeles is to dynamically price,  charging different groups different prices, all freeway access. Allowing some commuters to whiz by congestion in adjacent lanes for a fee will not solve the city’s traffic issues.


Teddy Minch is a graduate student studying public policy and civil infrastructure finance.

3 replies
  1. Stephanie Wiggins
    Stephanie Wiggins says:

    HOT lanes have proven to be successful in reducing congestion in other parts of Southern California (Orange County, San Diego County) for rmore than a decade. They have also been successful in other parts of the country. The Metro Express Lanes offer Los Angeles County an opportunity to improve travel choices for commuters through the one-year pilot program. On I-110, the Harbor Transitway (between Adams Blvd and 190th Street) will be converted to HOT lanes. For about 8 miles, there are two carpool lanes in each direction. Both of the lanes will be converted. It is important to note that on both the I-110 and I-10 – no general purpose lanes will be tolled and carpools that meet the existing occupancy requirements will travel toll free. On I-10, Metro will add another HOT lane by re-striping the existing buffer for about 9 miles along the I-10 El Monte Busway — both carpool lanes will be converted to HOT lanes without taking away any general purpose lanes. In addition, Metro is purchasing more than 40 new clean fuels buses to improve transit service on the Express Lanes.
    While demand for freeway capacity does exceed supply, Metro’s Express Lanes Program offers incentives to encourage transit, vanpools, and carpools, as well as providing single drivers access to the Express Lanes when space is available. With 10 million people and growing in Los Angeles County, we can’t afford not to look at all options to improve mobility.

  2. Reed
    Reed says:

    Just change for access to all the freeways, and use the massive amount of profits to rapidly build more rail lines. The vast majority of freeway traffic in LA is single-occupancy commuter traffic, which is exactly the population that could (and should) be offloaded onto much more space-efficient mass-transit. Such mass transit WILL get better in LA if more people use it (i.e. more funding and more service, because mass-transit is far more scale-able than road capacity), but people need an incentive to take it. Right now, heavy traffic is not a strong enough incentive to get people out of their cars. Perhaps a $3-5 toll at every on-ramp would be. Imagine if, rather than adding lanes to the 405, we made it a toll road and built a fast rail line parallel to it? Person-moving capacity would be exponentially better, and trains never get in traffic jams.

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