L.A. is Paying Commuters to Use Transit (Sort of)

As part of a pilot program, bus riders get credits that they can put toward tolls.

If the freeway congestion didn't provide enough incentive, Los Angeles commuters now have another reason to ride transit. They'll get paid to do it. Sort of.

The region's new Metro ExpressLanes are a one-year demonstration program run by L.A. Metro, Caltrans (the California state transportation agency) and other area agencies designed to improve travel options on I-110 and I-10 freeways.

The program is primarily funded by a $210 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Lots of new bus service was added along the two freeways, and congestion pricing was introduced by converting HOV lanes to HOT lanes. That change gives drivers the option to pay extra in exchange for a faster trip and the chance to whiz by other vehicles. The first part of ExpressLanes, on the I-110, debuted in November, with the I-10 portion launching in February.

During peak periods of increased traffic, the toll is higher to discourage new drivers from entering the HOT lanes, guaranteeing a minimum speed of 45 mph. Tolls range from $0.25 to $1.40 per mile. Supporters have pitched it as a way to reduce congestion, improve travel times, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, though opponents lament that the areas freeways are no longer truly free.

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As part of the project, officials introduced something that may completely unique in the United States. People who choose to ride buses through the corridors get a small reward. For every 32 one-way, peak hour transit trips they take along more than a dozen routes, they earn $5 in toll credits that can be used along the same route.

That might be useful on days when transit customers know they'll need a car at work, or they're running late and don't have time to pay for a bus. Stephanie Wiggins, head of the Metro ExpressLanes program, believes it's likely the only toll road that gives people credits for using transit.

Officials came up with the concept because they believed it might be a way to convince people to try transit and ultimately become "choice" riders. "We all like a discount," Wiggins says. "It's opening up people's eyes."

The system is possible largely because of the technology behind the transit system and the toll roads. Angelinos use an electronic card to pay for transit trips, and they use a transponder in their car for toll trips. To get the credits, customers just have to link enter their transit account number when they sign for a transponder, and the rest is done automatically. "We wanted something to be seamless to the transit rider," Wiggins said. "They wouldn't have to do anything different."

While the reward is low -- it comes out to about 15 cents per trip -- Wiggins believes it's enough to pique people's interest in transit. And, she notes, because multiple transit accounts can be linked to a single toll account, families may see rewards add up more quickly.

Through June 30, nearly 4,000 customers had linked their transit accounts to the toll accounts. Of those, 607 had earned  $3,030 worth of toll credits. Those aren't huge numbers, but Wiggins believes the credits are influencing behavior -- all at very low cost to the agency.

Because ExpressLanes are a federal pilot program, a big part of the project will be analyses to determine what worked and what didn't. As a result, Wiggins says, officials will conduct surveys to determine whether the credits did, in fact, persuade any riders to try transit as she suspects.

If they find that it did, the idea might catch on: she's already fielding calls from transit officials elsewhere who are interested in the concept.

Communications manager for the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute