Metro Atlanta’s toll lanes are not part of the solution; they are part of the problem

By Guest Columnist BRIAN GIST, a senior attorney and transportation specialist for the Southern Environmental Law Center

Since they opened this October, the public’s response to the high-occupancy toll lanes on I-85 has been pervasive, vocal and angry.

Commuters complain that the lanes are expensive for those choosing to use them and that they have worsened driving conditions for those who choose not to use them.

Brian Gist

In the media and at public meetings, commuters wonder who approved toll lanes as the transportation “fix” for this stretch of I-85. With a similar project proposed for I-75/ I-575, and a $16 billion plan to build these lanes across this region, the question must be asked: are we willing to accept toll lanes as the transportation strategy for metro Atlanta?

It is clear to see why the Georgia Department of Transportation is enamored with the toll lane concept.

Highways across Atlanta grind to a halt every day during rush hour. Simply adding more lanes does not fix the problem because any new highway space is immediately filled by the commuters forced to drive in off hours, take alternate routes or forego driving at rush hour altogether. The decline in gas tax receipts and federal funds, the traditional sources of transportation funding, only exacerbates the challenge.

Tolling seems a quick fix to both problems. Increasing the tolls when roads are most crowded ensures that traffic in the tolled lanes continues to move during even the worst traffic jam. And tolls provide a new source of funds for building these projects.

But stepping back, it quickly becomes clear that toll lanes are little more than a band-aid, a quick-fix that fails to address the underlying problem. The toll lanes move freely at rush hour, but the untolled lanes on that same road remain as congested or even get worse.

The lack of improvement in the untolled lanes is by design; the GDOT states that the toll lanes “do not, nor are they intended to, resolve or even substantially improve congestion in the general purpose lanes.”

Pursuing toll lanes as the transportation strategy for Atlanta is an admission that congestion on Atlanta’s untolled highways is essentially unfixable. This is a striking point – people will only pay to drive in the toll lanes if it is a better option than the congestion in the untolled lanes. Building toll lanes means we have given up on fixing congestion in the other lanes.

Traffic counts for I-85 make clear that the project has provided little in the way of an actual solution. This stretch of I-85 carries up to 290,000 vehicles per day. Almost 18,500 (6.3 percent) of those vehicles used the carpool lanes before the toll lane project.

Only 10,500 (3.6 percent) of the vehicles on I-85 use the toll lanes today. The I-85 project provides a solution for 4 percent of drivers and makes conditions worse for the other 96 percent.

And what happened to the 8,000 vehicles that used the carpool lanes before but not the toll lanes after the conversion? They have been forced into the untolled lanes, side streets, or elsewhere.

We must also consider the benefits and consequences of toll lanes through the lens of job creation.

Transportation is frequently cited as a challenge for Atlanta businesses and an obstacle to attracting new companies here.

Can existing companies accept tolls as a new cost of doing business here? Will toll lanes make Atlanta a more attractive destination for relocating businesses? Can a company function if 96% of its employees remain stuck in unfixable, untolled lanes?

The benefits of toll lanes may be minimal but their cost is not. The idea that toll roads pay for themselves is a myth. In fact, every toll road in the country requires toll revenue to be supplemented with state dollars.

Converting the carpool lanes on I-85 to toll lanes required a multi-million dollar federal subsidy and plus millions more in state dollars.

It remains to be seen whether the toll revenue will even cover the lane’s operating cost. The toll lane project proposed for I-75/575, a $1 billion dollar project, would require $300 million in state transportation dollars even after the toll revenue, a public-private partnership, and an enormous federal subsidy. The plan to build toll lanes across the region would cost $16 billion, with the state picking up nearly half of that bill.

The public was outraged to see that the toll lane project on I-85 failed to fix the interstate as a whole. But the toll lanes are working exactly as designed and fixing the untolled lanes was never the point. In the words of GDOT, the toll lanes “do not, nor are they intended to, resolve or even substantially improve congestion in the [untolled lanes].”

The bottom line question we must ask is whether we are prepared to accept toll lanes as the transportation strategy for the region? Or are we being sold a product that no one wants to buy?

These projects offer drivers a choice between traffic or tolls. We need to build projects that offer us the choice of driving or not.

22 replies
  1. TylerBlazer says:

    “These projects offer drivers a choice between traffic or tolls. We need to build projects that offer us the choice of driving or not.” AMEN!Report

    Reply
  2. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Very good column, Mr. Gist, as you make some very vaild points and raise some very important and key issues about the HOT Lanes on I-85 and the state’s total embrace of placing tolls on existing and new lanes as a transportation strategy.Report

    Reply
  3. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    “These projects offer drivers a choice between traffic or tolls. We need to build projects that offer us the choice of driving or not.”

    That’s the thing. The state’s all out embrace of using toll lanes as their strategy to deal with congestion is actually intended to takeaway the choice of driving over the long term by pushing SOV(single occupant vehicle) traffic, which make up the majority of commuting traffic on the roads at present, off of the interstate onto local surface roads. Pushing SOV traffic off of a major interstate like I-85 by placing tolls on multiple existing lanes and making traffic worse in the remaining untolled lanes and on surface roads is being used as a way to compel transit-averse motorists in OTP exurban and suburban areas, starting with Gwinnett and Cobb Counties, to use future mass transit lines that the state will be backing over the long term. The state is using the tolled carpool lane concept as a way to ensure that currently transit-averse suburbanites make heavy use of future mass transit lines that will be built to pull local automobile traffic off of the roads when the massive expansion of the Port of Savannah later this decade and continued growth at seaports on the Gulf Coast affect a massive increase in the amount of already exceptionally heavy freight truck traffic on Atlanta Region interstates.Report

    Reply
  4. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    The state intends to intentionally use the toll lane strategy to force SOV traffic off of the Interstates to clear space and make way for dramatically increased freight truck traffic, meaning the only choice that the state wants there to be is between tolls and transit. With the impending expansion of the Port of Savannah, the state feels that the Atlanta Region has reached the point where where they feel they have no choice but to desperately find a way to start forcing historically transit-averse OTP suburban and exurban drivers to use transit or face having the interstates become completely impassable for most of the day due to the dramatically increased truck traffic that will be generated by the imminent expansion of the Port of Savannah.Report

    Reply
  5. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Basically, the state is going to use HOT Lanes to socially engineer transit-averse suburbanites and SOV drivers to eventually fully embrace mass transit options whether they want to or not. The development of the state’s use of HOT Lanes as a way to compel SOV drivers and currently transit-averse suburbanites and exurbanites to embrace transit over the long term should come as good news to hardcore transit advocates who have for many, many years longed for more state financial support and encouragement of increased SOV commuter utilization of mass transit. Transit advocates shouldn’t necessarily have very much to complain about as it looks like the state has finally come around to your point-of-view and way-of-thinking when it comes to transportation management, it’s just that the state isn’t going to leave very much to chance as to whether motorists use transit as they are going to use HOT Lanes to compel motorists to use the transit that they may not want to use now.Report

    Reply
  6. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    With the exception of the west, south and east stretches of I-285, early every other stretch of roadway proposed to have tolls implemented on them is also proposed to have multiple high-frequency mass transit lines developed to run parallel to them. This includes the first stretch of roadway with HOT Lanes, I-85 Northeast in DeKalb and Fulton Counties, which is proposed to have two future commuter rail lines, a future light rail line, an extension of MARTA from Doraville to Duluth and expanded commuter bus service in the tolled carpool lanes run parallel to the I-85 Northeast Corridor through Gwinnett County, not to mention high-frequency bus rapid transit on US 78/Stone Mountain Highway through South Gwinnett. Placing tolls on existing lanes on very heavily-traveled I-85 makes these proposed mass transit lines a lot more viable than they might be otherwise.Report

    Reply
  7. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    “And what happened to the 8,000 vehicles that used the carpool lanes before but not the toll lanes after the conversion? They have been forced into the untolled lanes, side streets, or elsewhere.”

    Exactly. Pushing more traffic onto side roads and major surface streets to closer to where people actually live ‘primes-the-pump,’ so to speak, for heavy usage of future mass transit lines by forcing motorists to use surface routes closer to home. For example, before the HOT Lanes went into effect on I-85, motorists who live close to major routes like Hwy 29 and even Hwy 78 would drive several miles out of their way to use I-85 to drive into the city despite living much closer to Hwys 29 & 78. Forcing those motorists, most of them in single-occupant vehicles, to use the major route closer to their homes instead of driving out of the way to use I-85 for their commute is already signifies a way that the toll lane strategy has forced drivers to change their commuting habits. Report

    Reply
  8. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    After so many years of sitting in traffic on major surface routes closer to their homes to avoid the tolls on multiple lanes of I-85, the state is betting that those drivers will be much more open to the idea of embracing and using the adjacent mass transit lines that they may not have fully embraced or may have completely rejected in years past. So instead of driving 10-15 miles out of the way to use (and clog) I-85, those same drivers may be much more inclined to use the Brain Train commuter rail line or the Hwy 78 bus rapid transit that runs within 5 miles of their house.

    The HOT Lanes are not intended as “congestion reduction”, but are instead intended as BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION to compel SOV motorists to use the future mass transit lines that will run much closer to their homes than I-85.Report

    Reply
  9. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    “In the media and at public meetings, commuters wonder who approved toll lanes as the transportation “fix” for this stretch of I-85.”

    Speaking of who approved and backs the toll lane concept. An interesting tidbit of information is that one of the main backers of the toll lane concept in Georgia is State Senator Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga. Mullis is Chairman of the State Senate Transportation Committee and is also one of the state’s biggest backers of high-speed intercity and commuter rail between Atlanta and Chattanooga on the existing CSX freight rail line that runs parallel to I-75 through NW Georgia and NW Metro Atlanta, the same stretch of I-75 where the next set of HOT lanes, that State Sen. Mullis supports, are proposed to be built in Georgia. Toll lanes are being implemented as a way to pump up demand for future mass transit. Report

    Reply
  10. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    The reason why HOT Lanes are being used to pump up demand for future mass transit lines is because Metro Atlanta’s very dominant real estate development community has turned their focus from the traditional post-World War II era strategy of centering commercial development on roads to centering future commercial development on passenger rail lines (heavy rail, light rail and commuter rail). HOT Lanes are not only being used to increasingly dissuade local SOV motorists from using the interstates and clear the way for massively increased truck traffic, but are also being used to drive commuters to the rail lines that will be the focus of future commercial and residential real estate development.Report

    Reply
  11. health_impact says:

    I would actually argue the opposite of this. All of our roads use federal, state, and local dollars (including a big chunk of sales and property taxes), but we allow drivers to use them for free, at any time, in spite of the impacts to other travelers and to the region. Using tolls to build new highways turns out to be a no-win situation, but pricing the roads we currently have (and can no longer afford to maintain) results in a lot of wins if it is done properly: some people actually do choose alternate commute modes (like transit or bicycle), some change their schedule to avoid rush hour or carpool more vigorously, and some decide to pay into the system. The result in that case is lower VMT, lower emissions, more money to pay for transportation (including transit alternatives), and fewer subsidies for motorists. I think our region would function a lot better if all major highways were fully tolled, almost like London’s congestion pricing scheme.Report

    Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      @health_impact

      You can’t necessarily say that drivers are allowed to use the roads for “free” as anytime that drivers and motorists buy gas (state and federal gas taxes) or buy something retail (Special Local Option Sales Tax) or pay property taxes, etc, they pay to construct and maintain the roads. It’s wholly unfair to charge drivers a second time to use roads that they already paid for. I could agree with your logic if the government abolished the different taxes that are currently used to fund to build and maintain the roads (gas taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, etc) and just collected tolls on roads, that might be a way that was slightly fairer, yet probably less popular with the amount of sticker shock that would with each use (like the $3.05 to $5.50 one-way maximum that can possibly be levied on the HOT lanes on I-85 when the road is maxed-out).Report

      Reply
      • health_impact says:

        @The Last Democrat in Georgia But I also pay my property taxes and sales taxes, and I commute by bike or train. If you compare the space and wear-and-tear that motorists are putting on the roads versus my impact, I am subsidizing the heck out of them. Now, I agree that taxes should be used for things that benefit society and not just the person who paid the tax, but I expect those funds to be used rationally. Study after study shows that road pricing is the only way to reduce congestion and VMT. And as fuel efficiency increases, gas taxes will pay less and less for roads. We can’t even afford to maintain what we have now. I’m sorry if motorists have been happily insulated from the true cost of driving, and it is a shock to see a price tag applied to it, but it’s the best policy.Report

        Reply
        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

          @health_impact

          You mean that road pricing is the best policy until the motorists bring out the torches and pitchforks and throw the politicians behind it out of office head-first.

          Motorists tend to vote in much larger numbers than bike and train riders, especially when they get mad, because there are simply more motorists than bike and train riders in traditionally car-crazed Georgia.

          Though with the massive increase in freight truck traffic about to flood the roads with the expansion of the Port of Savannah, one of the five-busiest seaports in all of the Americas, OTP Metro Atlantans and North Georgians’ long-held legendary aversion to all things transit may be about to change dramatically, whether they like it or not.Report

          Reply
        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

          @health_impact

          LOL! Get ready to have A LOT more company on those trains and buses that you like to ride in the next few years, HOT lanes or no HOT lanes.Report

          Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      @health_impact

      It’s also doubtful that all major highways would be fully tolled as there is an exceptionally heavy amount of freight truck traffic that uses the Interstate system in Georgia, due to the Port of Savannah (via I-16 & I-75) on the Atlantic Coast and the seaports on the Gulf Coast (via I-85). The trucking and logistics industry has A LOT of very major pull in state government, so any scheme to toll the interstates would likely only involve placing tolls on the left lanes of the highway restricted to truck traffic as is planned to eventually occur on the stretch of I-85 with the HOT Lanes. This isn’t being done out of concern for people’s personal health as much as it is being done to clear the roads of single-occupant vehicle (SOV) traffic to create more space for the massive uptick in freight truck traffic that will occur with the increase in cargo traffic at the Port of Savannah that will dramaticall affect Interstates 75, 285 & 20 and the seaports on the Gulf Coast that will affect I-85.Report

      Reply
      • health_impact says:

        @The Last Democrat in Georgia Again, if we stop subsidizing roads for the benefit of trucking corporations, maybe they would make smarter choices in favor of shipping methods with fewer externalities, like freight rail.Report

        Reply
        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

          @health_impact

          We can’t stop subsidizing roads for the benefit of trucking corporations because there are just simply too many of them in Georgia (WAY more the national average, per capita because of Atlanta’s and Georgia’s status as a MAJOR logistics hub). The ultra-powerful trucking industry in Georgia would also never allow it as they’ve got way too many of our highly-esteemed state legislators deep in their pockets. Why do you think that the idea to force trucks to use toll lanes quickly went out the window when it was proposed by a perennially loopy (and clueless) GDOT back in 2005? Two words that state legislators love to hear: Ch-CHING!!!Report

          Reply
        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

          @health_impact

          As for shipping by freight rail, they already do. Georgia’s major freight rail lines (controlled for the most part by Eastern rail freight shipping giants CSX and Norfolk Southern) carry so much cargo at times that they are almost literally stretched to the breaking point, especially on the segment of CSX and NS lines that run to the north and west of the city towards Chattanooga, which are two of the busiest sections of freight rail lines on the North American continent. The amount of cargo that passes through Metro Atlanta by both rail and truck is mindbogging, an extremely heavy of cargo that is about to become exceptional when the Panama Canal is expanded and a deepened Port of Savannah starts handling even larger cargo ships from East Asia later this decade…Like I stated before, don’t expect that transit that you prefer to utilize to remain a well-kept secret forever as you are about to get lots of company.Report

          Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.