State must Ensure Georgians Warm Up to HOT Lanes

By Benita M. Dodd

When a 16-mile High-Occupancy toll (HOT) lane demonstration project opened October 1 on Interstate 85 in metro Atlanta, it was no surprise that motorists crawling alongside in crowded general-purpose lanes got hot under the collar when they saw the nearly empty HOT lanes. What is surprising, however, is that state officials aren’t giving the Express Lanes time to succeed as a congestion relief measure.

In the first week, the governor ordered a reduction in the tolls. That’s a reasonable response to market forces: Commuters will choose to ride in the Express Lanes if the toll is worth the value in their time savings. If they aren’t riding, the price is too high. Atlanta’s traffic problem is one of supply and demand. Pricing that reflects the true value of roads at various times of day is a time-tested way of balancing supply and demand and improving mobility.

Then, on October 11, state officials sent a letter to the federal government asking it to allow two-occupant vehicles to ride free “due to feedback received from motorists.” This is a mistake:

  • The Georgia Department of Transportation selected the I-85 corridor for the $110 million federal demonstration project precisely because “it has very high demand and the HOV lanes are regularly overused in peak periods.” Reverting to HOV will return the lanes to congestion.
  • Such a reaction within the first 11 days was hasty and unwise. The concept of tolling must be promoted, explained and embraced. This is not “just a demonstration project.” Sending a message of no-confidence to Georgians endangers the future of a crucial regional network of HOT lanes.

It will also take longer than 11 days for enough solo drivers to choose to use the Express Lanes to make a difference in the regular lanes. Other cities have faced adjustment periods, but the HOT lanes eventually reduced traffic in the regular lanes and won public support. Successful HOT lanes operations include Denver, Houston, Miami, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, San Diego and Seattle.

California’s SR-91 Express Lanes save toll-paying commuters 30 minutes on the 10-mile trip between Orange and Riverside counties. “Three ride free” except eastbound between 4- 6 p.m. weekdays, when they pay half the toll, which ranges from a low of $4.55 on Monday to $8.85 on Friday. Other lanes benefit, too: Rush-hour speeds in the regular lanes increased by 17 mph and peak-period congestion in the morning was reduced by over an hour.

In a 2009 customer satisfaction survey, 94 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their experience on the toll road because they encountered no problems and consistently saved time on the 91 Express Lanes.

The good news is that despite well-publicized complaints, motorists are slowly embracing the I-85 Express Lanes. By the third week of October, toll-paying traffic had more than doubled over the first week, according to Peter Samuel of Tollroadsnews. Evening peak speed in the Express Lanes averaged 17.6 mph higher than in the regular lanes and the average toll rate was just 88 cents.

Policy-makers must do better at explaining the difference between the HOT lanes tolls and the fixed toll on Georgia 400, which officials unwisely extended beyond its official expiration date. They must explain that the changing prices on HOT lanes are not intended simply to pay for infrastructure, like Georgia 400’s toll, but to provide “congestion insurance:” the option to use a congestion-free corridor that has a guaranteed minimum speed and a faster trip.

There’s a more pressing reason for Georgia officials to reassure commuters about the potential of HOT lanes – even on existing interstates and highways that many people consider “paid-for:”  funding for rehabilitation and upgrading of infrastructure. Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation notes that federal policy has not dealt with the $2 trillion to $3 trillion cost of reconstructing and modernizing the Interstate system, most of which exceeds its original 50-year design life over the next 20 years. Needs are soaring but fuel tax revenue is declining because of fuel efficiency and the push for alternative-fuel vehicles.

I-85’s Express Lanes comprise one converted lane in each direction. Motorists struggle to see how they benefit when they believe they have “lost” a lane. But I-85 can demonstrate how congestion pricing ensures the free flow of traffic. Much research and real-world experience in the United States and other countries support congestion pricing as a cost-effective way to reduce congestion. This is a first step to a metro Atlanta HOT lane network that will add capacity, attractive transit, mobility and long-term congestion relief.

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 (October 28, 2011). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.

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