Atlanta Journal-Constitution: I-85 HOT Lanes are Working

The launch of the Georgia I-85 High-Occupancy-Toll (HOT) lane in October 2011 from Chamblee-Tucker Rd to Old Peachtree Rd was rocky. Prices were too high, cars were too few, and many drivers were ready for a public hanging.

Changing the usage rule for any lane is challenging. And making two changes is doubly risky. (This is the first managed lane conversion that changed two factors at one time.) Both the occupancy requirement, minimum occupancy for carpools increased from 2 to 3, and the cost, all 1 and 2 person vehicles were required to pay a small fee, were changed. The State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA), which operates the lane admits it made mistakes.

And even though the lane is now working well, some refuse to use it.

The biggest problem with the rocky launch was that people became angry with the Managed Lanes concept instead of merely the implementation. Over the last 16 months on any given day the I-85 HOT lane moves more people through the corridor than the previous High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane ever moved. Yet despite this fact some insist that traffic congestion is worse than before the conversion.

Some transportation types thought the media coverage of the lane was overly negative. (This tends to happen when your new transportation project initially makes congestion worse.) Many of those types were happy that Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Mark Arum explained how and why the lane is succeeding. Arum looked at the lane from a business perspective:

Let’s pretend you own a business. In January of 2012 your business had 254,075 customers. Not too shabby. A year later, in January of 2013, you increased your number of customers to 401,183 people. That’s pretty impressive year-to-year growth, no matter what business you are in. Not only did you increase the amount of customers that you had, but each customer spent almost 12 percent more with you in January of 2013 then they did in 2012.

The numbers I referenced above are the year-to-year figures released by the State Road & Toll Authority last week on the I-85 Express Lanes. Between January 2012 and January 2013, the number of trips taken in the High Occupancy Toll lanes increased by 147,108 trips and the average daily fare increase from $1.26 per trip to $1.42 per trip.

I think the statistics show that the express lanes are working, and that more and more commuters are using them in their daily commutes.

I know the express lanes have their critics. Often very vocal, the complaints generally center around the perception that traffic has gotten worse since the installation of the express lanes.

As someone who covers the I-85 commute on a daily basis, I can assure you traffic is no worse on I-85 than it was when the HOT lanes were HOV lanes. Is it better? That’s debatable. I think all things being equal, if there is no bad weather, and no bad crashes, drive times have slightly decreased since the express lanes went into effect.

As more people acquired the necessary Peach Pass to use the express lane and saw the benefit of that option ridership naturally increased. The Toll Authority is required to keep the average speed in the express lane at 45 miles per hour or more. As more people use the lane, it makes it more difficult to keep those speeds. That is why we’ve seen an increase in the toll price year-to-year. That is why the daily average fair has jumped from $1.26 to $1.42.

To those who are still upset, here are a couple of things worth considering. Changes are seldom easy. Georgia converted the lane for four reasons. But two of these reasons are often misunderstood. First, the I-85 conversion differed from other conversions in that the carpool lane was failing federal performance requirements. Atlanta’s HOV lanes were paid for with federal funding. That funding comes with the attached string that if the lane does not operate at 45 miles per hour or more 90% of time, the state of GA has to reimburse the federal government 100% of the construction costs of that lane. The I-85 HOV lane failed that requirement. And if the lane had continued to fail the requirement, there is an excellent chance that GA would have had to pay money it did not have to the federal government. Second, one of the major goals of the project was to improve transit since Atlanta has some of the lowest transit use of any major metro area in the country. The grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), not the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) offered a low-cost way to significantly improve transit service.

Throughout the U.S., managed lanes offer choice to commuters, increase the number of people commuting by transit by decreasing the travel time, guarantee a reliable travel time to all drivers willing to pay a small toll, and provide access to emergency vehicles such as ambulances transporting those will life-threatening conditions to the hospital.

The success of the I-85 managed lane indicates that such lanes should be a major part of solving Atlanta’s transportation problems. And Atlanta has three other managed lanes projects in the works. All three other managed lane projects will include new lanes, not existing lane conversions. Since customers will not be forced out of their lane the transition period should be much smoother. However, to receive the full benefit of these lanes metro Atlanta travelers have to accept managed lanes. And they have to be honest with themselves about solving congestion. With the federal debt, and absent a politically unpopular major increase in the gas tax, resources for new free capacity are going to be very limited. Commuters are urged to step back and take an objective look at managed lanes. For the Atlanta region, there is a lot to like.