Tolls Could Bail Metro Area Out of Congestion

By Benita M. Dodd 

Transportation expert Robert Poole found an unusually receptive audience for his congestion-relief proposals at a recent Georgia Public Policy Foundation Leadership Breakfast.

The founder of the Reason Foundation, whose 1988 policy paper inspired a California private tollway law that became a national prototype, was discussing his newest proposal for relieving congestion in eight metropolitan areas, including Atlanta.

Instead of adding high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to highways, Poole says, metro Atlanta should construct a network of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. Buses and van pools would travel free and unimpeded on dedicated lanes funded in part by motorists willing to pay a variable price by electronic toll to escape the congestion.

It’s not pie-in-the-sky:HOT lanes already are operating successfully with such congestion pricing in three urban areas in California and Texas, and are being considered elsewhere. But Poole’s proposal couldn’t have been more opportune, coming just one day after The Road Information Project, a Washington-based research group, announced that traffic congestion costs metro Atlantans an astounding $1.9 billion a year in lost time and fuel – and that doesn’t include the related costs of pollution from idling cars.

With census estimates that more than 500 new residents move into the metro area every day, the signs point to congestion worsening. So, too, will our hard-won air quality improvements and quality of life – unless policymakers quickly embrace innovative, cost-effective solutions to move metro Atlanta’s motorists more efficiently.

Happily, when time is money, many Americans reconsider the perception that HOT lanes are “Lexus Lanes” to benefit only the rich. That’s when they see the advantages of what Poole calls “congestion insurance.”

“You would know that no matter where you needed to go, and no matter how bad the congestion was on the general purpose regular lane, there’d be an uncongested lane or lanes available to you for a price whenever you need to use it,” Poole points out. “That’s something today you cannot buy for any price, no matter how bad your need is.”

“Whether you’re a single mother with a child in day care facing late fees and you would love to pay $5 in order to avoid a $12 late fee; the electrician needing to get in one more appointment for the day; … you, when you’re going to the airport, might miss your plane, or have a very important meeting to get to – you don’t have that choice.” 

Car pools, too, become more sustainable, because participants know that even on the day that no one else shows up for the car pool, they can still use the HOT lane for a premium.

A HOT network could make a sizeable dent in traffic in Atlanta, whose reputation for one of the nation’s longest average commutes is a reality that hinders car pooling and HOV lane use. With 77 percent of motorists driving alone, the far-flung metro area ties with Houston and lags only Dallas-Forth Worth in solo drivers.

To be considered a good performer, an HOV lane needs to carry about 950 vehicles per hour, according to Poole. Unfortunately, despite huge expenditures on HOV lanes, buses and other transportation alternatives, transit’s market share and carpooling haven’t improved. Georgia Department of Transportation counts show that the metro area’s busiest HOV lanes – north- and southbound  I-75/85 at 14th Street – average 582 cars per hour, compared with the 12 general-use lanes that each average 1,205 cars per hour.

Atlanta’s busiest HOV lanes, in other words, average just 41 percent of the traffic of a general-use lane. And on I-75 northbound (one of the least-used HOV lanes), it’s not uncommon for drivers to risk a $75 fine during the evening rush hour to ride in the underutilized HOV lane.

HOT lanes in San Diego, Houston and Orange County, Calif., are proving more efficient and popular than HOV lanes, allowing buses and van pools to travel without hindrance, making mass transit more attractive, and giving motorists options.

Gov. Sonny Perdue, who has pledged “cost-effective transportation investments,” already endorses flex trolleys (bus rapid transit), train-like buses that operate on dedicated lanes. The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority estimates flex trolleys will cost about half the cost of light rail and about one-fifth the cost of heavy rail.

A “seamless” metro Atlanta HOT network would cost $4.9 billion, by Poole’s research (See www.rppi.org).  The funding is accessible: About half the cost could be covered by issuing toll revenue bonds; the rest could come from the federal and state gas-tax funds targeted for expansion of the HOV network.Texas, whose public-private partnership law allows the blending of state highway funds and toll revenues, issued $1.3 billion in toll revenue bonds last year. Texas transportation proposals for 4,000 miles of new highway and rail corridors would fund the highway portions largely by tolls, and included specialized truck lanes.

GRTA executive director Jim Ritchey says a GRTA value-pricing task force has examined the issue of HOT lanes, and, “We do expect that exploring with new facilities the use of high-occupancy tolling is something that the value pricing task force will likely encourage.”

At a Sustainable Roundtable Breakfast recently, Georgia Democratic State Senator Sam Zamarripa summed up the challenge:

 “Transportation will continue to be the leading-edge issue” in advancing an environmentally sound agenda, he said. “The question of the decade is whether we can improve connectivity through alternative forms of transportation.”

Congestion relief for metro Atlanta is indeed vital to improve economic opportunity and our quality of life, and to meet the challenge of tougher federal air-quality standards.

I-75 through Cobb County is next in line for HOV lane expansion, giving the governor an ideal demonstration project for HOT lanes as a cost-effective transportation investment. With growing acceptance that transportation solutions must be based pragmatically on commuter patterns and lifestyles instead of fantastic attempts to inconvenience Atlantans into behavior modification, this tried and tested transportation alternative deserves an opportunity in Atlanta.


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 (June 6, 2003). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.