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.
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.