Friday, April 06, 2007

"What's nine bucks [for 10 miles] if you're headed to Las Vegas to blow a hundred on the blackjack table?"

91 Freeway's top toll hits nearly $1 a mile

The peak fare for the 10-mile drive from Orange County to Riverside County is going up to $9.50.

April 6, 2007

By David Reyes
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2007

Along with death and taxes, commuters on the 91 Freeway may never be able to escape rush-hour congestion and rising tolls.

Starting today, it will cost drivers as much as $9.50 to use the Express Lanes to get from Orange County to Riverside County — or nearly a buck a mile.

The new top fare, up a quarter from the last rate increase in January, places the 10-mile toll road among the most expensive in the country. It has doubled since 2002.

Denver-area motorists pay $9.75 on Interstate 470, but that gets them nearly 50 miles.

Tolls on the 91 generally will start at $1.15 if you are traveling from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. But commuters' pocketbooks will be hit hardest if they want to head east at prime time: 4 to 5 p.m. Fridays.

Why the increase? Because the toll lanes are too popular, said Kirk Avila, the Express Lanes' general manager.

"We have to raise the toll to try to move people to the 'shoulder,' or off-peak hours, where they can save money," he said.

In planner parlance, it's called "congestion pricing."

The peak westbound toll will be $4.05, from 7 to 8 a.m. Mondays through Thursdays.

Planners are banking that commuters change their habits, said a spokeswoman for the Orange County Transportation Authority, which approved the fare increases.

For example, on Thursdays, if eastbound motorists can head home from 3 to 4 p.m., the toll is $4.95. Wait until 4 p.m. and prepare to pay $4 more.

Otherwise, the toll lanes eventually will clog, leaving little motivation for those who travel the freeway to use them, Avila said.

It's part of the toll lanes' balancing act of supply and demand, where it's not about making money but ensuring that traffic flows faster, said Hamid Bahadori, public policy and programs director for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

The key is whether the new toll discourages enough drivers from using the toll lanes and sends them onto the regular freeway lanes, he said.

The 91 Express Lanes were owned by a private firm until they were bought by the OCTA five years ago for nearly $208 million. In fiscal 2006, the Express Lanes made enough money to pay the annual $12.5 million bond debt and to pay for the tollway's upkeep, Avila said.

The OCTA's authority to charge tolls will end in 2030 or when the bond debt is retired.

Until then, the lanes will only get more popular. Last year, the Express Lanes, which run from Anaheim to near the Riverside-Orange County border, reported more than 14 million trips, double the amount in 2000, Avila said.

That popularity is fueled in part by high real estate prices in Los Angeles and Orange counties that have driven home buyers into the Inland Empire, said David Brownstone, chairman of UC Irvine's economics department.

The 91 Freeway also has become the major feeder to Interstate 15, which takes people to Las Vegas, Brownstone said.

On Friday evenings, when the tolls are highest, commuters will be sharing the lanes with thousands of motorists headed to Nevada, along with others in motor homes and pickups pulling trailers with ATVs out for a weekend in the desert or the mountains.

"A lot of those recreational drivers don't drive the 91 Freeway every day, so for them, what's nine bucks if you're headed to Las Vegas to blow a hundred on the blackjack table?" Brownstone said.

© 2007 Los Angeles Times:

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