Adding Road Capacity and Toll Roads Can Beat Congestion

Atlanta can overcome traffic woes by changing long-range plan

Many in Atlanta have given up on reducing traffic congestion. Not only do they say we are stuck with it, they are actually okay with letting traffic get worse. And it will. By 2030, an Atlanta trip that is supposed to take 30 minutes will take you 55. That’s worse than the infamous gridlock in today’s Los Angeles.

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta recently said, “Congestion is not a scientific mystery, nor is it an uncontrollable force. Congestion results from poor policy choices and a failure to separate solutions that are effective from those that are not.”

He could’ve been talking about Atlanta, where you’ll often hear, “We can’t build our way out of congestion.”

Tell that to Paris, where a private firm is tunneling deep beneath historic Versailles to preserve the past while eliminating a huge traffic bottleneck. Or to Millau, France, home to the world’s tallest bridge, a private toll project only slightly shorter than the Empire State Building. Or to Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, where privately developed tollways and tunnels have greatly eased congestion.

While the rest of the world gets creative, Atlanta is stuck in traffic. The Atlanta Regional Commission’s (ARC) long-range plan would spend $26 billion over the next 25 years on new transportation infrastructure—but admits that congestion will still be much worse in 2030.

Why? Priorities. The plan would invest $10 billion in mass transit—which they expect will deliver a miniscule 1.7 percent increase in transit’s single-digit market share. And what will its $5 billion on carpool lanes buy you? ARC says a smaller percentage of commuters will carpool after it spends the billions.

Congestion threatens to strangle Atlanta, destroying its viability as a place to live and work and its position as a major trucking and logistics center. More highway capacity is an essential part of an integrated congestion-reduction program. Reason Foundation and Georgia Public Policy Foundation have proposed an integrated approach, including improved incident response, improved system operations, value pricing, and four major toll road and tunnel projects.

These much-needed capacity additions would cut commute times and guarantee that drivers always have a congestion-free route to work, the airport, or their child’s soccer game.

The biggest project is a network of variably-priced toll lanes that would connect all of the metro area’s major freeways. The tolls would reflect traffic conditions, with the highest rates being charged at rush-hour and the lanes would always be moving at the maximum speed limit. A double-deck north-south tunnel would relieve congestion on the Downtown Connector, and an east-west tunnel would be part of a new route parallel to I-20. Finally, a separate toll truckway system would let trucks save an hour or more getting through Atlanta, saving time worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Our very preliminary estimate is that value-priced toll revenues, and not tax dollars, could fund up to $20 billion of these projects’ total cost of $25 billion. And the value of just the time they would save over 20 years is worth about $100 billion. That’s a benefit to cost ratio of about four to one—a winner in anybody’s book. Our proposal is a first look at the potential feasibility of this approach. But the numbers are robust enough to make these projects worth far more detailed study by Georgia’s transportation agencies.

Robert Poole is director of transportation at Reason Foundation. He has advised the last four presidential administrations and is author of a new report on how to reduce Atlanta’s traffic congestion online here. An archive of Poole’s work is available here and Reason’s transportation research and commentary is here.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.


Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.