By Benita M. Dodd
How and how much are far from concurrence, but Georgians agree that what transportation needs most is funding. Sifting through the myriad transportation proposals, however, reveals that policy-makers from the nation’s capital to the state Capitol agree on one more need: toll roads and, specifically, high-occupancy toll lanes.
Back in 2005, Georgia’s State Road and Tollway Authority studied the potential benefits of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, which would allow solo motorists access to formerly high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes for a fee. SRTA concluded that these lanes, often derided as “Lexus lanes,” would provide more than just time savings to the drivers cruising in them: They would also provide a reliable, shorter trip for transit vehicles and reduce congestion in the adjacent general purpose lanes.
The Georgia 400 toll road was completed in 1993 after being funded in 1987 as the first project in the nation to implement electronic toll collection through automatic vehicle identification. In 2006, SRTA reports, the system carried about 112,000 cars per day. But the state’s innovative – and only – toll road is coming to symbolize the folly of foot-dragging and congestion and has become a way of life in the metro area.
Two steps can ease congestion in metro Atlanta. One is to add capacity, exceedingly costly and difficult but nonetheless essential for the region to continue to thrive economically and accommodate population growth. The other is to value-price lanes, creating an express-lane toll network that would offer a reliable trip across metro Atlanta to those who need it and are willing to pay the premium to use it. At the same time as an express-lane network frees space in general-purpose (“no-charge”) lanes, it helps fund the cost of adding lanes and enlightens motorists on how to value the roads they use.
Establishing the value of our roads and time are vital, if the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s 2007 Metropolitan Atlanta Performance Report is anything to go by. The MAP report, which tracks the overall performance of the region’s transportation system, found just 12 percent of arterial lane miles moderately or severely congested in the morning peak period (6:30-9:30 a.m.) and 19 percent in the evening peak period (4-7 p.m.). On metro Atlanta’s freeways, however, travelers needed to add an average 34 percent morning time “buffer” to ensure they got their destination on time, along with 43 percent during the evening peak.
Why are the freeways so congested and the arterial roads not? First, because everyone values their time and the road space equally. The concepts that some roads and trips may be more valuable than others do not enter when all roads are virtually “free.” As one transportation analyst puts it, “It’s like going into a grocery store where everything is marked the same price. Everyone goes for the filet mignon, and it sells out first.”
Second, arterial roads, which feed and free our congested freeways, appear only recently to have been recognized as an integral part of the transportation network. Hence the effort to synchronize traffic lights and the construction of ramp meters to pace flow onto the freeways (while unfortunately backing up traffic on the arterials).
Georgia’s pioneering role on electronic toll collection; the HOT lane study completed by SRTA and the proposals in “Reducing Congestion in Atlanta,” and analysis by the Reason Foundation’s Robert W. Poole and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, all point to the ability to convert the state’s HOV system to an HOT express lane system. In such a system, state-of-the-art electronic tolling would allow a motorist a seamless transition among the interstates and allow variable time-of-day pricing to ensure the trip remains congestion-free. The Legislature’s enabling laws for public-private partnerships can expedite the process even as the state struggles with how to add capacity amid what the Georgia Department of Transportation describes as a $7.7 billion funding shortfall. The revenue from tolls would help pay for the expedited project; the lanes’ speed and at a cost pricing would promote car-pooling, van pools and express bus service, thus adding further capacity in general-purpose lanes.
Finally. here’s a proven secret: If highway speeds can be maintained at not less than 35-40 mph, that lane can carry third more than a lane moving stop-and-go at 10-15 mph. Thu, three managed lanes can work as hard and move as many vehicles as four badly congested lanes.
Congestion relief is critical, and it clearly will take different forms in different areas of Georgia. But as Georgians argue over whether to walk, bike, telecommute or ride the rails out of traffic gridlock – and how to pay for it – it’s time to embrace the proposals where there is agreement. And an express HOT lane network for metro Atlanta is one.
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 (February 15, 2008). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.