By Benita M. Dodd
The standoff among the House, the Senate and the Governor’s office over competing transportation proposals continues under Georgia’s Gold Dome, but the Department of Transportation isn’t standing still. The DOT is moving right along with its plan to take Georgia commuters into the 21st century with a series of open houses through April focusing on the state’s first high-occupancy toll (HOT) lane project.
The pilot project, expected to be operational in January 2011, would convert 14.3 miles of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to HOT lanes on Interstate 85 between Chamblee-Tucker Road (south of I-285 in DeKalb County) and Old Peachtree Road in Gwinnett County. The Georgia DOT intends the segment as the first of “a future envisioned HOT lane network combined with enhanced transit and carpooling resources.”
Sometimes HOT lanes are called “Lexus lanes,” an elitist way to enable wealthier, paying motorists to bypass the congestion that the unwashed masses must endure. California’s SR-91 HOT lanes project shows otherwise, and a study found demographics no different than in regular lanes. On the contrary, “I like to describe HOT lanes as used by moms headed to the airport and dads rushing home to take children to soccer practice,” says Shirley Ybarra, an analyst with the Reason Foundation. The former Secretary of Transportation for Virginia, Ybarra authored Virginia’s public-private partnership (PPP) legislation, considered the national model legislation. That state’s I-495 HOT lanes project, opening in 2013, is also considered a PPP model for states. If a vehicle has at least three occupants it will travel free, as will buses, motorcycles and emergency response vehicles.
A HOT lane network is a logical transition for Georgia’s underused and misguided HOV lane project. Despite the noble intention of relieving congestion by encouraging carpools and thereby reducing cars on the road, Georgia’s free HOV lanes fall short. Often, the “carpools” constitute relatives (couples, families or parent and child, for example) who would have been riding together anyway, so the number of vehicles on the road is not reduced. Riding with an infant in the vehicle, driving an alternative fuel vehicle or riding a motorcycle qualifies one for the HOV lane.
Embracing HOT lanes, on the other hand, ensures a reliable, free-flow trip whether it’s a single-occupant vehicle or a passenger bus. Many solo motorists are happy to pay a fee for that assurance. Yet carpools (usually vehicles with three or more occupants) can still travel at no charge. Allowing the fee, or toll, to be variable depending on the time of day or congestion in the “regular” lanes ensures the free flow of traffic.
Not only will the U.S. Department of Transportation’s $110 million fund Georgia’s HOT lane pilot, it also covers the purchase of 36 new 57-passenger buses (allowing more express bus routes) and two new park-and-ride lots. Growing challenges for the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s popular express buses are its standing room-only routes and getting stuck in the same interstate peak-hour traffic jams as the rest of traffic. Embracing public transit use is easier when van pool and bus passengers get a toll-free trip in the HOT lane with the assurance of reliable and improved trip times.
Leverage that into an efficient HOT lane network providing for express buses to leave the interstate and continue to travel with priority, with traffic signal preemption on major arterial roads. At a fifth of the cost of rail, the result is a more efficient, flexible mode of transit that enables the state to maximize the number of people served by transit.
Legislators are feuding over whether Georgia transportation reform should occur via a regional, statewide or governance approach. What they should focus on is the most cost-effective strategy to reduce urban traffic congestion: investments outside the costly, crowded urban region. A strategic statewide plan would benefit taxpayers, commuters and businesses by leveraging existing investments, connecting ports and key regions and creating a way to move the majority of the state’s large volume of freight traffic through and around Georgia without gridlocking Atlanta.
Georgia’s transportation woes demonstrate the need for an overhaul of the process, politically and policy-wise. They reinforce the danger of doing nothing, but that is nowhere near the danger of getting it wrong. Transportation’s economic challenges – predicted long before this country’s current economic meltdown – will continue and grow. The least this state must do is start where the impact on congestion relief is dramatic and the need for a major tax increase is minimized.
For more on HOT lanes, go to www.gppf.org
For more information on Georgia’s HOT lane pilot project, go to http://www.dot.state.ga.us/informationcenter/activeprojects/Interstates/I85hotlanes/Pages/default.aspx
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 (March 27, 2009). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.