L.A. Freeways? Not so fast.
It’s official. There’s no longer anything free about L.A.’s freeways.
By way of explanation, I’ve had several “opportunities” already this year to make the round trip drive to LAX. Getting there has never been easy. Before the opening of the I-105 (Century Freeway) in 1993, the fastest route from the Crescenta Valley was via the I-110 (Harbor Freeway), getting off at Manchester Avenue and driving through some of the more, well, interesting communities of Southern California. (Please Lord, no flat tires tonight!)
Another improvement was the opening of the HOV or High Occupancy Vehicle, lanes along the 11-mile stretch of the Harbor Transit-way in 1998. Built at a cost of 500 million taxpayer dollars, the Transit-way allowed vehicles with two or more occupants to fly past all the solo drivers stuck on the rolling parking lot, better known as the Harbor Freeway. The drive still wasn’t a walk in the park, but it wasn’t bad. Even though many thousands of cars used the HOV lanes on any given day, in my experience traffic was never less than 45 or 50 mph while cars on the rest of the freeway were more often than not crawling or stopped completely.
Enter the new, improved, brought-to-you-by-the-geniuses-in-government Metro ExpressLanes which debuted last November. This one-year pilot program has taken a well-used, simple component of our freeway system and mucked it up into something so complicated and costly to use that it could only have been dreamed up by federal fools, er … excuse me, officials.
To use the former HOV lanes (now rechristened “HOT” for High Occupancy Toll lanes), all drivers must now purchase a FastTrack transponder device to clutter up your dashboard. You must also open a Metro ExpressLanes account using a credit or debit card which is immediately dinged for something like $50 for the privilege of using the same lanes you’ve been able to use for free all these years. Depending on the amount of congestion, you will now be charged from 25 cents to $1.40 per mile if driving alone. If you are carpooling, you simply set the switch on the bulky plastic FastTrak transponder to let the millions of dollars-worth of newly installed electronic cameras, sensors and other Orwellian tracking electronics know that you’re traveling with more than just your bad self in the vehicle. Did you get that? Yes, after setting up the new Metro Express Lane program with a $210 million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, the entire concept appears to rely on the honor system. I honestly don’t know how they intend to track down scofflaws who are driving alone but set their transponder switches to “2” or “3.” No worries. I’m sure they’ll have no trouble spending millions more to find a way to make the program actually work.
I refuse to spend $50 for the new program, plus be charged a monthly $3 maintenance fee if I don’t use the HOT lanes at least four times each month (have I mentioned how complicated this program is?).
So I’ve been stuck in Harbor Freeway gridlock every time I’ve made the trip to LAX since last November. Just yesterday, in fact, I crept along at 10 mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic trying desperately to make it to LAX before my wife’s flight arrived.
The worst part, however, is that – as has been the case every time I’ve made the drive since November – the ExpressLanes are almost always completely empty of cars. So, what were once well-traveled, time-saving, pollution-reducing carpool lanes have been turned into 11 miles of near-empty roadway. Meanwhile, more cars than ever crawl slowly nearby, jammed together, spewing exhaust and burning precious gallons of fuel.
What do you want to bet that by next November the powers-that-be will declare the program a rousing success and ask the feds for many millions more to fund its continued operation? Hey, it’s worked for Amtrak.
I’ll see you ‘round town.