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Georgia’s toll collections down by 70 percent as pandemic cuts commuter travel

A few commuters avail themselves of the toll lanes along the Northwest Corridor as trip times begin increasing at the onset of the afternoon rush on northbound lanes. Credit: David Pendered Toll collections in Georgia have fallen by 70 percent, or more, compared to pre-pandemic levels such as this moment in February. File/Credit: David Pendered

By David Pendered

Georgia’s toll road system is the only one of eight systems nationwide in which traffic on toll roads has not recovered to levels approaching pre-pandemic levels, and toll collections are off by up to 70 percent, a new report shows.

A few commuters avail themselves of the toll lanes along the Northwest Corridor as trip times begin increasing at the onset of the afternoon rush on northbound lanes. Credit: David Pendered

Toll collections in Georgia have fallen by 70 percent, or more, compared to pre-pandemic levels such as this moment in February. File/Credit: David Pendered

The impact of the reduced collections on upcoming debt payments was not mentioned in a statement released Friday on the nation’s major toll ways.

In Georgia, the drop in toll-road traffic has resulted in collection rates dropping by 70% to 75% of their forecasted revenue, according to a survey of eight toll road systems conducted by the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Assoc. IBTTA released the report Friday.

This is a dramatic shift from pre-pandemic on one particular toll road, the Northwest Corridor Express Lanes Project.

Toll collections were so robust that Moody’s Investors Service raised the credit rating on bonds that helped pay for it. Moody’s analysts observed in their March rating action:

  • “A continuation of the current trajectory will increase cash flow, debt service coverage and resiliency relative to initial projections, strengthening the project’s ability to manage growing debt service requirements over the medium term and/or future volatility in traffic and revenue.”

The drop in travel on Georgia’s toll roads could be attributed to their use primarily by commuters, rather than commercial vehicles. Moody’s issued on July 30 a sector report on toll roads that was not specific to any state or agency, but did observe:

  • “Toll roads with large share of commercial revenue pre-COVID-19 experienced lower total revenue losses compared to commuter toll roads….”

IBTTA’s report found the decline in travel on toll roads is part of a national phenomenon related to shelter-in-place orders that are intended to flatten the spread of the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

The report included this information from Georgia’s State Road and Tollway Authority:

  • “COVID Traffic Update: From April 1-7, 2020, traffic was down 79 percent. August 1-7, 2020, traffic volume was down 53 percent. These percentages relate to pre-pandemic traffic levels for similar weekdays.”

The report included this comment from SRTA Executive Director Chris Tomlinson:

  • “Over the past five months, SRTA saw an unprecedented decline in trips and toll revenue, but since May we have seen a slow but steady increase in both. Currently we are at approximately 50% of our normal trip volume and about 25-30% of forecasted revenue.
  • “We will continue to see a slow but steady increase in trips, toll revenue and unfortunately in congestion, as overall traffic volume levels continue to climb on Metro Atlanta’s highways.
  • “We are constantly adapting and improving our operational procedures to enhance the safety and personal interactions within the customer experience to ensure that the quality of services Peach Pass customers receive remain optimum.”

Transportation is one of the sectors that will have to evolve in the face of the pandemic, according to IBTTA President Samuel Johnson, interim CEO of the Transportation Corridor Agencies in Irvine, Ca.:

  • “[P]rojecting when traffic will return to pre-pandemic levels is extremely challenging. The pandemic has presented monumental challenges and opportunities in planning for the rebalancing of demand across modes including transit and especially with teleworking achieving recognition as a strong and viable alternative. These changes in mode choice will likely shift over the next couple of years but the tolling industry will continue to be a strong contributor to the movement of goods and people.”

Here’s how eight systems stacked up, in the IBTTA survey, in terms of traffic volume, compared to the same reporting period of Aug. 1 through Aug. 7, 2019:

SRTA

  • Down 53 percent

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

  • Down 14 percent.

New Jersey Turnpike

  • Down 27 percent

Pennsylvania Turnpike

  • Down 22.9 percent

Ohio Turnpike

  • Down 15.8 percent

E-470 (Aurora, Co.)

  • Down 36.9 percent

Transportation Corridor Agencies (Irvine, Ca.)

  • Down 32 percent

Bay Area Tollway Authority (transporation, transit, ferry service)

  • Down 22 percent

 

 

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David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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