By Benita M. Dodd
Georgians, particularly those in and around transportation corridors of metro areas, deal on an almost-daily basis with congestion stemming from truck-related traffic incidents. The bigger the truck, the bigger the headache and, of course, the greater the risk of injuries and fatalities.
Motorists complain bitterly. One irate commuter demanded in a newspaper article that Georgia reduce truck speed limits. It’s irrelevant to commuters that 65-75 percent of wrecks involving trucks are the fault of passenger vehicle drivers. What hits home is that for each minute of incident delay on our highways, traffic takes seven minutes to recover.
The fervent wish that each side get out of the other’s way will intensify in the next quarter-century: Commercial vehicle traffic is predicted to increase 50 percent and the metro Atlanta region will add 2.5 million residents. In this age of just-in-time delivery – delivering cargo just as it’s needed so companies avoid the additional expense of warehousing and inventories – the smooth flow of truck traffic is an economic necessity. Transportation of goods is no hit-or-miss process; it must occur dependably, safely, efficiently and cost-effectively, or consumer goods will grow pricier while trucking firms’ costs climb due to penalties and added fuel and labor.
Time is money and truckers’ options are few. So are Georgia’s. The list of transportation projects is growing and the federal pot is shrinking, hindering efforts at congestion relief. Today, when a wreck clogs Interstate 285, a Florida-bound trucker has two options, both undesirable: Wait out the backup or risk an illegal trip down I-75 South through Atlanta.
What if there was a market-oriented approach that offered truckers the option to pay a fee and use a Truck-Only Toll lane? They could weigh the cost of the toll versus the cost of burning fuel and time sitting in congestion in regular lanes. What if using that TOT lane saves 51 to 80 minutes over the regular lanes in peak traffic? And what if the value of time savings for trucks exceeds $792 million?
If developed and operated under Georgia’s public-private partnership legislation, TOT lanes could help expedite congestion relief without slamming taxpayers. Tolls would help with construction costs, operations, maintenance and oversight. The TOT lanes would relieve congestion and would improve safety in the general-purpose lanes by reducing the risk of a truck-related wreck in regular lanes. (Large trucks are just 1 percent of registered vehicles but feature in 12 percent of fatal crashes.)
The State Road and Tollway Authority, which sees a network of High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes as a viable option for metro Atlanta, has also examined TOT lanes for metro Atlanta and proposes “further study.” The toll authority’s Study Steering Committee, comprising the Atlanta Regional Commission, federal and state transportation agencies and trucking industry representatives, assumed that tolls will be charged in truck-only lanes only “when necessary to manage the performance of the lanes.”
The authority looked at three options:
Not only would truckers gain up to a billion dollars in time savings (in Scenario 3), but regular lanes could benefit with a peak-hour congestion reduction of 17-24 percent. Not surprisingly, the SRTA’s Draft Final Report recommends that any future regional or corridor study of managed lanes include the concepts of HOT lanes and TOT lanes.
The state Board of Transportation, however, may have hurt Scenario 3, among other options for congestion relief, with a recent resolution to oppose tolls on existing roads. The preference is understandable, but inflexibility instead of a case-by-case consideration is unwise.
By embracing industry input, the state has planted the seeds of an innovative and promising public-private partnership in congestion relief. Ed Crowell, head of the Georgia Motor Trucking Association, hails the study as “an encouraging example of what can be accomplished when government and industry work together.”
“The commitment to meet the needs of all users appears to have produced elegant solutions to several problems at once,” Crowell says. “If further research bears out the study, the state may have a way to improve efficiency for all motorists, add flow capacity for freight movements and improve highway safety, all without onerous calls for major tax hikes, and, it will become evident, at a lower net cost than any other existing proposals.”
This study has far to go to completion, including establishing costs and tolls, and integrating construction with existing infrastructure. But even with constrained data, the benefits indicated so far cry out for further, intense exploration of this market-oriented approach. Such innovation is vital if metro Atlanta is to ensure growth doesn’t strangle the economic engine of Georgia and the South.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (June 24, 2005). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.