In this April 2, 2020, file photo, light traffic is seen on the 110 freeway with the city skyline in the background in Los Angeles, for decades a symbol of boundless growth and opportunity that attracted people from across the U.S. and abroad, has stagnated. Census data expected later this month will reveal what demographers and observers have long known: That California is now growing at a record slow rate and behind rival political states like Texas and Florida. That could cause the state to lose a U.S. House seat for the first time in its history. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez.

Los Angeles County Metro could permanently extend a pilot program that started in 2019 that allows drivers on the 110 and 10 Freeways to access toll lanes without a transponder as long as they pay a small fee.

The pilot program dropped the penalty from $25 to $4 for drivers who used the express toll lanes and did not have a Metro transponder in their car, which the agency uses to automatically charge customers for using the lanes that were introduced in 2012 and 2013 to help alleviate traffic in Los Angeles.

The penalties were charged in addition to the demand-based price for using the lanes, which generally fluctuates depending on traffic conditions. Now the Metro board of directors could vote next month to make the program permanent, with a potential doubling of the fee to $8, which Metro staff said Thursday is needed to cover costs.

LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who sits on the Metro board and requested the program in 2019, said her hope was to make the Metro system more user-friendly by allowing people who might not own a transponder to occasionally use the lanes for a reduced fee, which might lead to them becoming regular users.

“But also there are times when people are just trying to survive and get to work,” Hahn said Thursday. “Maybe their boss has said, ‘If you’re late one more time you’re fired,’ or they’re trying to get to a hospital.”

Hahn said she supports the program becoming permanent but balked at raising the additional fee from $4 to $8 per use.

“I want you to go back and figure out a little bit about keeping the fees lower because the congestion fee is a lot,” Hahn said of the fees charged to drivers, which can be over $10 or more during peak hours.

Hahn’s desire to keep the fee at $4 didn’t seem to have support Thursday, with other members pointing to the high fees charged by other regional toll-road operating agencies.

Under the proposed permanent program, the first fee would be $8 plus the congestion charge. If a user doesn’t pay that amount in 30 days, another $17 would be added. If another 30 days passes without payment another $30 would be added, totaling the additional fee charges at $55.

San Diego express lanes charge $40 for a first fee, according to Metro officials.

The update to the program was discussed during Metro’s Executive Management Committee and will now move to the full board for a vote next month.

Data compiled by Metro showed an increase of 900,000 people using the express lanes without transponders during the pilot program.

Long Beach drivers living in West, Central and North Long Beach had some of the highest rates of utilization for drivers using the pay-as-you-go pilot program compared to other communities south of the 10 Freeway.

However, more wealthy drivers living north and west of Los Angeles accounted for the highest usage rates of the pilot program, which led to pushback against Hahn’s efforts to keep the fees low.

“I don’t think we should subsidize those kinds of scofflaws when they don’t have a transponder and they’re doing it because they can afford it,” said Director Ara Najarian, who chairs the board.

Metro staff said that if the program is adopted by the full board as permanent, fees could be adjusted in the future. But the total fees for the first two notices sent out to drivers who use the lanes without a transponder would not rise above $25 cumulatively.

The next full meeting of the Metro board is scheduled for June 22.

More information on how to use the Metro Express Lanes can be found here. 

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.