Dave Williams of The Atlanta Business Chronicle quotes Foundation Vice President Benita Dodd extensively in an article in the October 14-20, 2016, edition about the express toll lanes under construction on Atlanta’s north and south side. The article is published in full below and can be found online here (subscription required).
By Dave Williams
Highway technology that Georgia transportation planners are counting on to help ease metro Atlanta’s chronic traffic jams will roll out along a 12-mile stretch of Interstate 75 starting in January.
For up to 90 cents a mile, harried motorists heading to work, an important business meeting or to see their kid’s ballgame will be able to move from a gridlocked general-use lane into a toll lane offering a speed-limit drive.
That’s the concept behind a series of “managed lane” projects that will start with the I-75 South Metro Express Lanes in Henry County and continue with the Northwest Corridor, now under construction along I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties.
“This is going to transform transportation in metro Atlanta,” said Benita Dodd, vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, which advocates free-market approaches to public policy. “It’s going to be our first demonstration for how this can work for the entire metro Atlanta area. We can see this growing into the kind of network that can get us out of congestion.”
Toll lanes already are familiar to drivers in the metro area. The State Road and Tollway Authority(SRTA) opened the region’s first managed lanes five years ago along 16 miles of I-85 in Gwinnett and northern DeKalb counties.
But there are a number of differences between the I-85 project and the toll lanes opening in January that have officials with SRTA and the Georgia Department of Transportation(DOT) characterizing the I-75 South project as Atlanta’s first real taste of the concept.
First, the I-75 project will provide additional capacity because it will add new lanes to the highway. For most of the route between Georgia 138 in Stockbridge and Georgia 155 in McDonough, two reversible lanes will run northbound during the morning commute and southbound during the afternoon rush.
With the I-85 project, existing lanes were converted into toll lanes.
Also unlike I-85, the I-75 South lanes will be separated by barriers from the general-use lanes. The toll lanes are being built into the median of the existing highway.
“It’s like a highway within a highway,” SRTA Executive Director Chris Tomlinson said.
There also won’t be as many free rides in the new toll lanes. While the I-85 toll lanes exempt motorcycles and electric vehicles from paying, only transit and emergency vehicles and active-duty military personnel won’t pay up on I-75.
Despite those differences, SRTA has learned a few things from the I-85 lanes that make the agency optimistic about the rollout of the new project.
After an initial outcry from motorists incensed with having to pay a toll to get out of traffic, ridership in the I-85 managed lanes has grown steadily. Ridership recently hit an all-time high of 26,000 trips a day, up from just 7,500 daily trips at the outset.
Similar growth in ridership and — not coincidentally — revenue is being forecast for the I-75 South lanes, according to a consultant study with annual projections running all the way through 2060.
Since the electronic tolls on managed lanes are determined by the amount of traffic, the record ridership on I-85 was accompanied by a record toll of $13.95 to cover the full distance.
“The toll has to keep going up to maintain traffic flow,” Dodd said. “I think we’ll see the same thing happening on the south side.”
Joe Carpenter, the DOT’s division director of public-private partnerships and program delivery, said the I-75 South project is a good first foray into building new managed lanes in metro Atlanta. At $226 million, it’s far less expensive than the $840 million Northwest Corridor, partly because the latter project will be much longer at 30 miles.
Because it’s simpler than the Northwest Corridor, the I-75 South toll lanes will open about 15 months earlier, even though both projects began construction at roughly the same time in 2014.
“The construction is pretty straightforward,” Carpenter said. “Most of it can be placed on the ground. Quite a bit of [the Northwest Corridor] has to be elevated.”
Bringing toll lanes to I-75 is sure to reopen the same philosophical debate over charging motorists to get out of traffic that was waged when the I-85 project opened in 2011. Wherever drivers across the country have had to pay a toll for driving on one part of a highway that is free on other parts of the same road, naysayers have criticized the fairness of “Lexus” lanes.
“If we want to create fast lanes for the wealthy, that’s the way to go,” said Ted Terry, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “But it’s going to leave the rest of metro Atlanta stuck in traffic.”
But Dodd said toll lanes are a healthy market-based strategy to address traffic congestion.
“It’s a user-fee approach,” she said. “If you don’t use it, you don’t have to pay. … People’s time is money. On days they absolutely have to be somewhere, they use it.”
Tomlinson said metro Atlanta motorists have gotten accustomed to the idea of toll lanes because of the I-85 project, even those who don’t frequent that area.
“Most people have heard of the Peach Pass,” he said. “I think the learning curve may not be as steep.”
Transit advocates are leery of the new toll lanes because they represent a traffic solution based on highway construction.
“We’re not going build enough roads to get out of congestion,” Terry said. “The major Fortune 500 companies that are trying to attract the millennial workforce are placing their operations along transit lines. We think that’s the best strategy.”
But Seth Millican, director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, an affiliate of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said the toll lane projects will benefit transit by providing freer-flowing lanes for commuter buses. In anticipation of the new lanes, a park-and-ride lot for buses operated by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority is being added at I-75 and Jonesboro Road.
SRTA and the DOT have more toll lane projects on their plates besides I-75 South and the Northwest Corridor. Construction began in August on a 10-mile extension of the I-85 toll lanes in Gwinnett County that will run from Old Peachtree Road to Hamilton Mill Road.
Toll lanes across the entire top end of I-285 and along Georgia 400 north to Atlanta’s far suburbs are part of a $10 billion, 10-year transportation plan Gov.Nathan Deal announced last January.
“I think these are critical,” Millican said. “Our hope is we see a lot more of these built.”
SOUTH EXPRESS PROJECT
Opening date: Jan. 30, 2017
The length from Interstate 75 and I-675
just north of Georgia 138 (Stockbridge Highway)
to Georgia 155 (McDonough Road)
10 cents – 90 cents
Toll rates per mile, depending on traffic flow
Exempt vehicles: Transit and emergency vehicles, active duty military
Cost of project
Source: Georgia Department of Transportation