SELC Releases Biased Report Against I-85 HOT Lanes

Last month the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) released a flawed study to suggest the GA I-85 HOT lanes harm low-income drivers. In reality, the data and similar reports from FHWA, FTA, CalTrans, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, Burris, Sciara, Sullivan and Weinstein show HOT lanes benefit all commuters, both highway and transit, regardless of income.

The SELC may not have the purest of intentions. In the past year the group released 6 reports critical of highways and 0 reports complementary of highways. The SELC is as likely to find something positive to say about a highway as Nancy Pelosi is to find something positive to say about Eric Cantor.

The report has three major flaws. The first and most significant is the exclusion of carpool, vanpool and transit trips in the HOT lane from the report’s calculations. Carpools and transit buses comprise 14 percent of all vehicles in the lane (more during rush hour) and carry almost 25% of total travelers. After excluding transit trips the report, using only the single-occupant vehicles, suggests the lane needs a transit component. But the lane has a transit component–the carpools, vanpools and buses that the authors deliberately excluded.

The second shortcoming is drawing a conclusion from the weak Correlation Coefficient. The report finds a Correlation Coefficient between median income and per capita HOT lane use of .44 which on a scale of 0 to 1 is a relatively weak value. This Correlation Coefficient suggests that many factors other than income, such as work location, affect HOT lane usage. And since SELC ignored carpools and buses in its analysis, the accurate value is far less than .44, indicating no connection at all.

The third issue is the incomplete data the report uses. I will give credit to the authors for admitting the limitations of their data, but the limited data makes the report almost useless. Let’s look at some of the data issues. The report uses zip code, not census track, data to determine which neighborhoods in a geographic location use the HOT lanes. A census tract contains fewer people than a zip code (1,500 to 4,500 compared to 25,000-60,0000 people in a zip code) and is far more likely to have a homogenous income. The report did not examine other variables likely to influence HOT lanes such as proximity to HOT lane entry points, likely destinations, alternate routes and/or transit service. Using only one variable creates a poor data stream. Additionally since HOT lane usage varies throughout the year using only four months of statistics creates an inaccurate report. To get a representative sample of data, the report needs to include at least 12 months of data.

The report is particularly concerned with user income, so let’s examine that issue more carefully. Only 2 of the 5 zip codes with the highest use and the highest income overlap. And these zip codes are located where the HOT lane begins. This suggests that people use the HOT lane based on geographic location, not income.

The highest use zip code has a median income similar to the county median. Of the 12 highest use zip codes, four have median incomes below the county average, three have median incomes at the county average and five have median incomes above the county average, so there is no evidence to support the claim that wealthier individuals are the only ones using the HOT lane.

Furthermore the breakdown of account holders suggests that lane users comprise all income groups. Eight and one half percent make less than $35,000; 19.9% earn $35,000-$49,000; 35.6% make $50,000 to $74,999; 21.3% earn $75,000 to $99,000; 12.2% make $100,000 to $149,999 with only 2% making over $150,000. And despite critics’ claims of “Lexus Lanes” the four most commonly used vehicles are the Honda Civic, Toyota Camry, Ford F-150 and Nissan Altima. None of these is a luxury car.

The four recommendations at the end indicate the authors do not understand how the I-85 HOT lanes work. The report suggests reducing occupancy requirements from 3+ to 2+. But the occupancy requirement was raised because the lane was failing to meet federal performance standards to operate at 45 miles per hour or higher 90% of the time. States in violation of those standards could be forced to pay back federal money used to build the lane. Since there are insufficient 3+ person carpools in Atlanta, the decision was made to charge single occupant vehicles who want to use the lane. But the lane is intended to benefit carpools, vanpools and transit people. Reducing the occupancy would hurt the transit services operating in the lane.

The report suggests using toll money to fund transit. But the project is already funding the transit right-of-way. Toll revenue is used to operate and maintain the lane including enforcement and towing service. The primary purpose of the lane is to improve transit service in the corridor by offering fast, reliable express bus service.

The report suggests providing all registered users limited access to the Managed Lane without charge by providing all users an annual account credit. I understand the sentiment but I do not see how this would work in reality. Lane users could be provided one free trip but that would make the lanes more congested, increasing the costs of trips to all other travelers resulting in no actual savings. Many general purpose lane users are not registered uses and would have to get a transponder sticker and pay $20 in pre-paid tolls to become registered users. Why would people who do not intend to pay for the lane spend $20 for per-paid tolls? Why would people who dislike the concept of HOT lanes, GDOT and SRTA pay anything to those agencies to use the lane?

But the report does have one good recommendation. It suggests limiting state funding. If the state entered into a PPP contract for this or any other lane, the private sector would contribute more funds, requiring less state funding. But since SELC wrote a report criticizing PPPs in Virginia, I doubt SELC will be favor this approach.

SELC used insufficient data to make conclusions about HOT lanes. Every other academic study I have read has concluded HOT lanes improve conditions for both highway and transit users regardless of income.

Why would anybody write a report with such poor data? The likely answer is viewed through SELC’s environmental lens: all highways are bad and all rail transit is good. This is not about low-income individuals and tolls. Most of SELC’s environmental recommendations disproportionately harm low-income individuals. This is about preventing mobility at all costs.