Paying tolls -- and loving it

FasTrak: San Diego drivers pay electronically for lanes to speed their commute. Maryland officials say a similar system could ease congestion here.

May 14, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

SAN DIEGO - Smith Charlotte is living her life in the fast lane, and she loves it.

Her extended family drives about 20 vehicles - each equipped with a cigarette-case-size transponder that lets them use the express toll lanes along heavily traveled Interstate 15 north of this Southern California city.

On many days, the Chula Vista resident pays as much as $4 each way - deducted from her account each time the transponder beeps - to zip along the center lanes while motorists in the free lanes are at a crawl.

"It's a must," Charlotte says.

If Maryland transportation officials' dreams come true, commuters in the Washington and Baltimore areas will have a similar choice in a few years. They frequently point to San Diego's FasTrak system as a model for the use of toll lanes to relieve traffic congestion.

While San Diego transportation officials call FasTrak a success, the system is far from perfect. At times, officials admit, even the FasTrak lanes slow to a crawl. And where Maryland officials advocate toll lanes as a way to pay for new highway lanes, California officials say their system isn't set up to finance road construction.

Originally derided by critics as "Lexus lanes" for the affluent, toll lanes appear to have won wide acceptance in San Diego and other places around the country. But much of their success here is the result of local conditions and more modest expectations than those raised by Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan and his aides.

The 8-mile stretch of I-15 has two toll lanes and extends from the northern fringe of San Diego to the northern suburb of Poway. Plans call for two more toll lanes in the center of the highway and a 12-mile extension to Escondido.

The toll lanes were built as high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and still serve that purpose. Car-poolers, defined as drivers with one or more passengers, still get to use the express lanes free. (Drivers who use the FasTrak system with neither a passenger nor a transponder risk fines of $271 to $341.)

Ray Traynor, senior project manager for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), said that in the mid-1990s, the mayor of Poway began to seek ways to divert traffic to underused HOV lanes.

Traynor said SANDAG and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) received federal funding for a demonstration project under which excess capacity in the HOV lanes would be sold to solo drivers willing to pay a toll. He said 75 percent of the vehicles in the lanes still ride free as HOVs, while 25 percent pay toll.

The tollbooth-free system requires users to equip their cars with a transponder that sends a signal to a collection device mounted on an overhead sign about two miles from the southern entrance to the FasTrak lanes. The signal debits the driver's prepaid account by the amount of the toll, which varies with the amount of congestion in the high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes.

Maryland Transportation Department officials have been dazzled by the high-tech efficiency of the system and attracted by its voluntary approach. Where former Gov. Parris N. Glendening scorned the concept, the Ehrlich administration has embraced its market-based logic.

Flanagan frequently defends the HOT lane concept against the charge of elitism by using the example of a parent rushing to pick up a child from day care by a deadline after which financial penalties kick in.

Officials here use the same example. They say that a middle-class parent living in Escondido or Rancho Bernardo might find it a bargain to pay $4 to save 20 minutes on I-15 rather than pay $20 in late charges.

"No matter what income bracket they're in, they still use it," said Caltrans project manager Lynn Barton.

Merits and pitfalls

But FasTrak doesn't always work. On most Friday evenings, when tolls are the highest, HOT lanes can become as badly frozen as free lanes - especially at the northern end, where six lanes merge into four. There are no refunds for the driver who pays a hefty toll and ends up in a traffic jam anyway.

"It's terrible on Fridays," said Charlotte, who says the service is "great" on other days.

Contrary to a belief common among users, the system is not based on the level of traffic in the four free lanes that parallel FasTrak lanes on either side, Barton said, but in the toll lanes. It is a crucial distinction for sophisticated users of the system, because when the toll rises much above $4 - the maximum is $8 - it's telling drivers to stay away.

Several drives up and down I-15 showed the merits and pitfalls of FasTrak.

Last Friday afternoon, a vehicle entering the northbound stretch paid $1 at 3:13 p.m. and got a good deal. The car sailed along at 70 mph while early rush hour traffic in the free lanes slowed to about 30 mph.

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