Paying commuters to change behavior: Earn by riding transit, traveling in off-peak hours

By David Pendered

Commuters on I-85 in Gwinnett County soon will have an option to get paid to take transit or travel outside peak periods, GRTA’s executive director said Wednesday.

I-85 Express Lanes

A pilot program will pay commuters who use I-85 in Gwinnett County to use transit or travel during off-peak hours. If successful, it may be expanded. Credit: GRTA

Three Commuter Credit pilot programs are intended to reduce the number of vehicles on the road. Usage of the toll lanes has spiked from 7,000 a day to 23,000 a day, and commuters don’t balk at paying the higher rates charged during peak congestion.

“We’re seeing an all time high of $10 for the whole trip, and even at that the lane is packed,” Chris Tomlinson, executive director of Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, said at Wednesday’s meeting of GRTA’s board of directors.

A six-week, online registration period begins March 16. The project launches May 1 and online payments begin in June, for the previous month. The project ends Oct. 31 and a report is due in December.

The Commuter Credit pilot programs are part of Gov. Nathan Deal’s initiative to get the highest and best performance from the region’s existing transportation network. Deal nominated Tomlinson to head GRTA partly because Tomlinson already heads the State Road and Tollway Authority, and is expected to improve collaboration among transportation agencies.

I-85 toll lanes

Traffic congestion on I-85 in Gwinnett County has reached the point that commuters don’t balk at paying $10 to travel in the toll lane. Credit: GRTA

The pilot programs also represent a renewed focus on the original purposes of the toll lanes on I-85 in Gwinnett County, Tomlinson said.

The four original purposes involved transit, tolling, telecommuting, and travel demand management, Tomlinson said. The federal government cited the four goals when it awarded $110 million for the project, he said.

“Most of the focus is on tolling,” Tomlinson said. “Commuter Credit brings us back to better, original position on these issues.”

Here’s how Tomlinson described the three programs:

  • Shift Commute – Provides toll credit if the Peach Pass isn’t used during peak periods. Aimed at the heaviest users of the toll lane, who aren’t sensitive to price hikes during peak demand. “We hope some people are interested in a bargain.”
  • Georgia Commute Options – Add a $3 match on Peach Pass, in addition to the current provision of $3 a day cash payment for people who carpool, plus a chance to win $25 in toll credits for carpooling. The program is governed by GDOT and ARC operates a portion of the program. “What I really like is we’re leveraging a process already in place with a partner, ARC, to get people to try carpooling or get them to return to carpooling.”
  • Chris Tomlinson

    Chris Tomlinson, GRTA’s executive director

    Ride Transit – Earn Toll Credits – Peach Pass users who ride GRTA’s Xpress service or Gwinnett County Transit in the I-85 toll lanes can earn up to $10 a month in toll credits. “They’ve earned more than the price of a single transit ride; every other trip is free.”

The programs result from collaboration among agencies that have a role in providing mobility in metro Atlanta – GRTA, SRTA, Atlanta Regional Commission, and Georgia Department of Transportation, Tomlinson said.

If the programs have a measurable impact on commuter patterns, they could be expanded to other corridors, Tomlinson said.

In an unrelated matter, state lawmakers now are considering a proposal that would reduce costs for public transit providers for an additional three years.

House Bill 279 would extend the motor fuel tax exemption for public transit providers. GRTA’s external affairs officer, Matt Markham, said the current exemption is set to expire in June and HB 279 would extend the exemption until 2018.

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. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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