SALT LAKE CITY -- More than one out of every 10 motorists using the state's express lane system on Interstate 15 do so illegally.
The Utah Department of Transportation says on an average day, approximately 4,000 motorists travel through some portion of the Express Lane system, which runs from Spanish Fork all the way north to the south Layton interchange.
Among the users of the lane, 12 percent are violators, meaning they are single-occupancy vehicles traveling in the lane without a state-issued transponder or a decal for a clean fuel vehicle.
UDOT's most recent numbers show that from October 2012 through September 2013, the Utah Highway Patrol gave tickets or warnings to 5,771 express lane violators.
"I was really quite surprised (by how many violations are occurring within the system)," said state transportation commissioner J. Kent Millington. "Why don't we up the penalty for violations?"
An electronic payment system charges solo drivers by using an algorithm that adjusts the price based on traffic conditions. Costs are higher when I-15 is more congested.
The lanes are divided into several payment zones with overhead signs that show the price to use each zone. Readers at several locations along the express lanes detect in-vehicle transponders as they travel through the zones and drivers' accounts are charged when they exit. UDOT uses the payments to operate and maintain the system.
The non-refundable transponder costs $8.75. Clean fuel decals have a one time $10 application fee. There is currently no monthly fee for express pass accounts.
While transportation officials say the number of scofflaws driving in the lane is still too high, violations are actually down from previous years.
In 2011, UDOT reported that 17 percent of the daily users of the express lane were violators. The federal government could theoretically impose sanctions if the violation rate creeps above 15 percent.
"We've changed our enforcement approach from trying to maintain a constant enforcement, to doing blitzes," said UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras. "We go out in a much more concentrated enforcement effort. It seems pretty effective."
UDOT spokesman Adan Carrillo, said UHP coordinates with UDOT to do enforcement blitzes at random times throughout the year, but outside of the blitzes, UHP troopers do visual enforcement only.
Transportation officials say the good news is that 63 percent of the express lane users are carrying two or more passengers, which is what the lanes were truly designed for.
"The real benefit of the lane is that it moves more people and it helps with air quality and everything else," said UDOT Region Two director Jason Davis.
Davis said average express lane speeds are typically three to eight miles per hour faster than general purpose lanes during peak traffic hours.
But while the lanes seem to be helping in moving traffic, the state is losing money on the system.
It costs UDOT about $840,000 a year to operate the system and it brings in only $672,000 in revenue.
Contact reporter Mitch Shaw at 801-625-4233 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23.