What’s HOT, What’s Not about High-Occupancy Toll Lanes for Georgia

By Benita M. Dodd

Georgia is moving forward on transportation innovation with a 16-mile High-Occupancy toll (HOT) lane project set to open this summer along Interstate 85 in metro Atlanta. Whether HOT lanes succeed as a mobility measure, however, depends on how far the state is willing to go beyond this federally funded demonstration project.

Georgia’s current high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes allow free passage to vehicles with two or more occupants, transit buses, motorcycles and alternative fueled vehicles (AFVs). Access for AFVs, of course, is highly questionable as a congestion relief measure, both for HOV and HOT lanes. Nevertheless, the HOT lanes opening this summer will allow buses, motorcycles and AFVs, as well as vehicles with three or more passengers for free. Single- and double-occupant vehicles may choose to use the lane for a variably priced toll.

Unlike Georgia 400, the state’s only other toll road, nobody will need to stop at a toll booth. Tolls will be collected electronically via a Peach Pass transponder sticker on vehicles’ windshields.

There are numerous advantages to implementing HOT lanes, including funding, congestion relief and transit opportunities. One of the greatest benefits of tolling – especially variable tolls – is that it motivates commuters to evaluate their trip time and route. That’s important because when it comes to congestion, timing is an enormous part of the problem on metro Atlanta’s highways.

First, moving toward tolling more roads is inevitable. Fuel taxes are unable to keep pace with the soaring cost of repairs and maintenance, let alone infrastructure improvements and expansions. Congressional leaders are pledging to limit projects to available funding. At the same time, automobile fuel efficiency is shrinking the tax revenue available for transportation. States are desperate to find funding sources, and these user fees make sense.

Recognizing the need for additional transportation revenue, even the Obama administration is proposing making pilot HOT lane projects permanent; tolling existing interstates; using toll revenues to construct new interstates that can be tolled; and using surplus toll revenues to fund operations, not just capital costs.

Second, HOT lanes provide what is essentially a dedicated lane for public transportation. Buses will become more attractive to commuters who opt to leave their cars at home, because they can expect a reliable trip time no matter what occurs in traffic in the regular lanes. Enabling bus drivers to pre-empt traffic lights once off the highway and on urban streets will help further.

Third, HOT lanes guarantee a travel speed to users. The goal for I-85’s HOT lanes is 45 miles per hour. That will be reinforced by electronic tolling, which means no toll booths impede the free flow of traffic, as well as by a toll that varies based on demand, known as congestion pricing.

Fourth, HOT lanes are not just “Lexus” lanes that favor the rich. They provide an alternative and a choice for all motorists. Those who have no urgent business are most likely to routinely take their chances in regular lanes. Those who have a pressing need – parents running late to retrieve a child at day care or an after-school program; the plumber keeping an appointment with a customer, or the traveler making it to the airport on time – will weigh the variable cost of the toll versus the guaranteed benefits.

With all the benefits, what’s not hot about HOT lanes for Georgia?

Anyone who has done the rush-hour drive in the I-75 HOV lane that ends at I-285 in Cobb County is aware of the frustration of being in a lane that begins in congestion and ends in congestion. If the 16-mile HOT lane stretch provides the same fate, detractors will quickly denounce the concept as a failure. The lane may be, but the concept most certainly is not. That’s because Georgia must not stop with 16 miles, but push forward to build a regional express lane network.

A network will go beyond offering choice and an alternative. It will offer a seamless transition around the metro Atlanta region that works for motorists and transit and is far more functional and cost-effective than fixed-rail systems.

To relieve congestion and enhance mobility in the region requires transportation leadership that enthusiastically embraces two vital solutions: a HOT lane network and the public-private partnerships that can make it a reality without overburdening taxpayers or growing government.  So far, however, none of it is on the mundane list of projects proffered for metro Atlanta’s 2012 regional transportation sales tax referendum. And that’s just myopic.

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 (July 15, 2011). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.