How OC’s TCA Toll Roads Agency Drove Me To Switch To Metro ExpressLanes

I-110 Express Lanes, from LA Metro ExpressLanes site

Orange County has a number of tollroads run by Transportation Corridor Agencies. We have little “FasTrak” transponders in our cars, stuck to our windshields, and we pay a toll on the infrequent occasions we use one of these. But with LA County getting its first tollroad, it suddenly made much more sense to abandon my “home” tollroad agency and go cross-border to LA MetroExpressLanes.

I discovered all this when I found I’d been charged for using the new Metro ExpressLanes on the I-110 Harbor Freeway. Previously, these were carpool lanes. Technically, they still are. If you have two or more people in your car (important note to come), you don’t get charged. But if you want to use them solo, now you can pay a variable toll, if you have a FasTrak transponder.

Now for that important note. Going down the 110 earlier this month, and seeing that carpools were still free, we used the lanes, wondering how they would tell we were a carpool. Our FasTrak transponder beeped a couple of times along the way, indicating that there may have been a charge. And, there sure was.

As it turns out, if you don’t want to get charged, and you’re a carpool, you have to use a “switchable transponder.” I’ve never seen one of these, but I assume there’s a switch you flip to broadcast that you have a carpool, so that you won’t be charged (and no doubt, there’s spot checks that happen to help enforce against abuse).

I discovered all this when I contacted the TCA, my home agency that I rent my transponders through. The TCA doesn’t have switchable transponders. It’ll be getting them next year, I was told. Moreover, it suggested that I close my TCA account and open one with LA, if I didn’t want to wait. From the email I got:

A switchable transponder is required for eligible carpools that want to use the I-110 and I-10 LA Metro Express Lanes for toll-free travel. A switchable transponder enables the driver to switch the dial on the transponder to indicate the number of passengers in their vehicle when traveling on the I-110 and I-10 Express Lanes.

Due to high demand, we regret to inform you that we do not have any switchable 3-way transponders in stock at this time. At the time of this e-mail, we are unable to provide you with an anticipated restocking time frame.

If you need the switchable 3-way transponder, it may be in your best interest to close your FasTrak account with our toll agency and create a new FasTrak account with LA Metro Express Lanes.  They may be reached at www.metroexpresslanes.net.

First, consider this a warning to anyone without a switchable tresponder and a suggestion to LA. Nothing on that freeway says you need one. The signs simply say that you need a FasTrak transponder, not some switchable one, so I’m sure a few out-of-area drivers are getting hit for tolls because of poor signage.

Second, decisions, decisions! One annoying thing is that the TCA charges you $2 per month as a “maintenance” fee per transponder, whether you use a toll road or not. If you spend more than $25 in tolls, this fee is waived. That’s good for frequent drivers; not so good for the infrequent ones.

LA is charging $1 more, or $3 per month maintenance. What’s not clear is if that is per transponder or for the account overall. If it’s per transponder, you pay more. If it’s per account, and you have more than one car, you’re going to save a bit.

Similar to OC, the monthly fee is waived, though this is based on making four one-way trips in a month. But better, it’s totally waived through early 2013 until the new I-10 lanes are approved.

That’s what tipped me over to switch for now. On the odd occasion I go into LA, I’m usually driving alone, and using the tollroads will be great. I can use their transponder, with no monthly fee for the next few months and perhaps even at a lower fee than OC. I’ll see how it goes.