Out of Control Policy Blog

Innovators in Action: Georgia DOT, Tolling Agency Officials on Atlanta's Managed Lanes Network

Earlier this month, I interviewed GDOT Deputy Commissioner Todd Long, incoming SRTA Executive Director Chris Tomlinson and SRTA Director of Operations Steve Corbin about the Georgia Managed Lane Network. 

There are different types of Managed Lanes. High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes allow vehicles with a specified number of occupants [usually 2 or 3] to use the lane while High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes allow drivers who pay a toll to use the lane. All transit vehicles may use HOV lanes for free and all registered transit vehicles may use Georgia’s HOT lanes for free. HOT lanes are a better solution for most of Georgia’s corridors. 

These managed lanes can offer this reliable travel time 24 hours per day for many years because their tolls increase or decrease based on congestion in these lanes. Building a complete network is important because Atlanta has at least 10 distinctive employment centers. 

The I-85 conversion project between Chamblee-Tucker Rd and Old Peachtree Rd was the first managed lanes project in Atlanta. The launch was rough. Our initial toll rates the Monday of the launch were too high. The dynamic pricing algorithm placed too much emphasis on the congestion in the general purpose lanes and not enough emphasis on the light volume in the express lane. Many people wanted to use the lane but did not have Peach Passes. The combination resulted in relatively empty lanes. We needed to make adjustments and we quickly did. 

Several new managed lanes are being planned or under construction. We are currently extending the I-85 lane from Old Peachtree Rd to Hamilton Mill Rd. We are also building 2 reversible Managed Lanes on I-75 south from SR 155 to the I-675/SR 138 area. We hope to have this project under contract later this summer. Lastly, the I-75/I-575 North project is the largest of our efforts. This project will add two reversible lanes on I-75 and one lane on I-575. Bids for that project open in April and a record of decision is expected by next January. We plan to start construction next year; we estimate that project will open in late 2017 or early 2018. We have several other corridors we are looking at for the future. SR 400 and I-285 from I-75N to I-85N are the next two. Currently, we lack funding for either of those projects. All of these managed lanes projects will add capacity. 

The full interview is available here.

Like most states, Georgia faces a major challenge in delivering future transportation infrastructure given the declining purchasing power of the federal gas tax, the rising maintenance needs of an aging highway network and the increasing costs of construction materials. Georgia spends a majority of its gas tax revenues on maintenance; finding sufficient money to build a transportation system fit for the 21st century is very challenging. 

The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) and State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) have embraced a managed lanes network plan as the best way to use existing resources and reduce congestion on metro Atlanta interstates and freeways. There are different types of Managed Lanes. High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes allow vehicles with a specified number of occupants [usually 2 or 3] to use the lane while High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes allow drivers who pay a toll to use the lane. All transit vehicles may use HOV lanes for free and all registered transit vehicles may use Georgia’s HOT lanes for free. The current plan was approved in 2010 and is being implemented across the region. 

In March 2013, Reason Foundation Transportation Policy Analyst Baruch Feigenbaum interviewed GDOT Deputy Commissioner Todd Long, incoming SRTA Executive Director Chris Tomlinson and SRTA Director of Operations Steve Corbin to discuss the concept of Managed Lanes, current operations and future plans for the network. 

Baruch Feigenbaum, Reason Foundation: Many metro areas across the country are studying and implementing Managed High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes as a way to reduce congestion. What are the principles behind a HOT Lane Network and why is it appropriate for Atlanta? 

Todd Long, Deputy Commissioner, Georgia Department of Transportation: Due to right-of-way costs we cannot continually widen highways. And in a growing metro area like Atlanta, new unpriced highway lanes will quickly become congested again. This principle called induced demand limits the effectiveness of adding general-purpose lanes. When complete, the Managed Lanes Network will offer a reliable travel time throughout the metro area. These managed lanes can offer this reliable travel time 24 hours per day for many years in the future because their tolls increase or decrease based on congestion in these lanes. Building a complete network is important because Atlanta has at least 10 distinctive employment centers. We need the entire network to provide quality connections between residential locations and these centers.

Chris Tomlinson, Incoming Executive Director, SRTA: Metro Atlanta has significant congestion issues. As Atlanta continues to grow economically, congestion will become much worse. Although GDOT has eminent domain powers at its disposal, taking land for improvements is never popular. Additionally, it is not a realistic solution because of constrained funds and induced demand. GDOT realized that the combination of growing demand, limited funding, and lack of right-of-way made continuing on our current path of traditional road widenings unsustainable. So staff recommended that the State Transportation Board adopt a Managed Lanes plan. In 2007, the board adopted the Managed Lanes plan in which any additional capacity in metro Atlanta is to be “Managed.” Managing, or in this case pricing, capacity can help control congestion and increase reliability. The network primarily relies on adding new priced lanes; however, in limited situations it considers converting existing lanes. When considering a conversion we examine both performance of the corridor and accessibility of the lane. The first project, the I-85 demonstration project, was a conversion project. In 2008, Georgia received a $110 million Congestion Reduction Demonstration (CRD) Program Grant to Atlanta. This federal government transit grant led to the implementation of a managed lane, enhanced transit service and innovative technology. 

Feigenbaum: Does the network have to be priced? Did metro Atlanta consider a (HOV) network? 

Long: The plan started as an HOV network, in 2000, before High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes became popular. After conducting revenue studies, we determined that there was neither sufficient funding nor projected demand to justify building an HOV network. While the HOT network has higher user forecasts and more forecast revenue, total revenue is not quite sufficient to fund the project. Working with the private sector and using Public Private Partnerships can provide 20-25% of the total project costs. The best solution is a Managed Lanes network that utilizes PPPs. 

Feigenbaum: What are the specific benefits of tolling or managing a lane? 

Long: For the I-85 lane specifically, data shows a slight reduction in the travel times in the I-85 general-purpose lanes but over time the general purpose lanes have returned to about the same level of congestion as before the HOT lanes were installed. However, the managed lanes now offer a reliable trip for cars and buses compared to the previous HOV lane where there were significant delays. One of the biggest improvements in the corridor has been to transit service. Both the number of buses and total ridership have increased as a result of the federal grant and new managed lane. Both the regional transit agency Xpress and local operator Gwinnett County Transit (GCT) have increased service, which is exactly what we hoped.

Tomlinson: The number one goal is for the lane to provide a predictable and reliable trip for both auto and transit users. Our customers highly value this benefit and are willing to pay for this higher level of service.

Feigenbaum: Is the I-85 lane different from other HOT Managed Lanes? Have there been any issues with customers being charged the wrong toll?

Steve Corbin, Director of Operations, SRTA: SRTA has a special program to monitor reliability. If something happens in the lane that significantly affects motorists such as an accident, we have the ability to refund or waive a portion of the customer’s trip or waive a violation. This is used to address some special circumstances unique to having a non-barrier separated HOT facility. We are the only non-barrier Managed Lane in the U.S. to offer such a program. Our goal is to be the number one customer-centric tolling agency in the country. 

Occasionally a customer will have a payment issue. One of the best tests of whether or not we are providing good customer service is if we resolve the customer’s problem. For example, during the past calendar year we have had only a few customers who notified of us an issue with the price they paid for the Managed Lanes. All were resolved to the customer's satisfaction. We believe providing this level of service is the best way to find new customers.

The rest of the interview is available here.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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