HOT Lanes Moving Right Along For Georgia

By Benita M. Dodd

Help is finally on the way for frustrated travelers once resigned to the absence of wide-open roads in metro Atlanta as policy-makers conquer the anti-automobile agenda and focus on reality-based transportation solutions.

Two promising signs came just this week. One was the Atlanta Regional Commission’s official adoption of its $53 billion Mobility 2030 transportation plan for the region. The ARC allocates more than half of the $53 billion to routine maintenance and operations. About $8.2 billion will add roadway capacity; $5 billion will increase transit capacity; $4.6 billion will add high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes; about $3 billion will focus on transportation technology and $1.1 billion will be spent on bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

Unfortunately, the ARC acknowledges that its plan, the single largest in the region’s history, “still falls well short of what is needed.” The commission’s plan to “effectively battle congestion” would need another $21 billion that the region simply doesn’t have and is unlikely to get. Policy-makers now must turn to innovative funding options to continue the battle and accommodate the 2.3 million newcomers projected to be in the metro area by 2030.

Which brings motorists to the second sign: the headlines about high-occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes. These are HOV lanes that offer solo drivers an option to escape the “regular” lanes by paying a toll that is variable, depending either on the congestion level or the time of day. HOT lanes add needed roadway capacity and reduce congestion. The user’s toll pays for the added capacity of the HOT lanes, while drivers in the regular lanes benefit as well from the freed capacity.

After being proposed for the state by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation more than five years ago as an innovative, speedy and market-oriented transportation solution, the HOT lanes concept has been under the spotlight of the State Roads and Toll Authority this year. Once dismissed as “Lexus lanes” and elitist, HOT lane projects across the nation have proved the concept otherwise: Reasonable tolls are happily paid by the plumber getting in that last appointment and the parent trying to beat the penalty at the day-care center. A bonus is that the private-sector role frees up state funds that can be used to expedite other transportation projects.

Last week, a consortium of three companies submitted a bid to build a 26-mile HOT lane project in the frequently congested north metro area along Interstates 75, 575 and 285. The bulk of the construction project would be paid with bond loans repaid to the consortium through the tolls. The project may include a mandatory toll lane for trucks, and some truckers are understandably wary of the cost-benefit ratio.

As the transportation puzzle in Georgia is pieced together, it’s clear that relying on the motor fuel tax to fund transportation is an increasingly bleak prospect. Not only is Georgia one of 25 “donor” states that get back less than 100 percent of the federal gas tax dollars they contribute to the federal government, but fuel efficiency has improved 30 percent over the past 20 years. Even though vehicle miles traveled have increased, the federal pot is getting smaller as other priorities divert funding. Additionally, the increasing use of alternatively-fueled vehicles means that more motorists won’t pay at the gas pump for their use of the road.

In 2002, census estimates show, 81 percent of Georgia workers drove to work alone; 11 percent carpooled and just 3 percent took public transportation. The acknowledgment by policy-makers of the clearly expressed preferences of Georgia’s commuters is essential. It is hardly a dismissal of public transportation, however. HOT lane projects offer an ideal opportunity to cost-effectively accommodate and increase transit use, because buses and shuttles – which would travel free in the HOT lanes – are no longer stuck in the same traffic as everyone else.

This is the second public-private partnership proposal for Georgia. Happily, more are sure to follow, because the feds warn that transportation funding shortfalls are here to stay. On the bright side, that increases the pressure on transportation policy-makers to focus on the state’s growing needs with flexible solutions, to quit the dreaming and resolve the traffic nightmare.

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 (December 3, 2004). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.