The Federal Highway Administration this week turned down the state of Georgia’s request to relax the occupancy requirement on the new Interstate 85 high occupancy toll lanes (HOT lanes) in Gwinett County. In October, the state imposed the toll on the existing carpool lane, raising the number of occupants qualifying for a free ride from two to three.
The initial $5.50 on top of the occupancy change proved too much and traffic ground to a halt in the general purpose lanes while the toll lanes remained relatively unused. In a panic, Governor Nathan Deal (R) moved on October 6 to slash the toll and request a waiver from the Federal Highway Administration to drop the occupancy requirement back down to two.
Groups opposed to the tolling are now redoubling their efforts to pressure state officials to cancel the project they see as an absolute failure. The Stolen Lanes coalition held a town hall meeting on Saturday featuring two state senators convinced that the tolls ought to be removed. The State Road and Toll Authority (SRTA), in a written response to a set of coalition questions, emphasized that the tolls are only meant to reduce congestion.
“The Express Lanes project was never intended to be a revenue generating system,” the agency’s letter stated. “Though we do not expect any excess revenue for several years, a final determination of the use of excess funds has not been made at this time. We are collectively working with other transportation agencies both at the state and federal level to determine how those funds would be utilized in the future, if and when excess revenues occur.”
Chris Haley, a co-founder of the Stolen Lanes group, insists the HOT lanes are making congestion worse, and not better, so the system ought to be scrapped entirely.
“In my opinion, a system to ‘collect money to pay for a system to collect money to pay for a system’ is clearly an example of government run amok,” Haley told TheNewspaper.
SRTA officials touted the issuance of 108,000 Peach Pass toll transponders as evidence that drivers are slowly embracing tolls and insisted that the HOT lanes need more time to prove themselves. Only 23,762 were used on I-85, and the number includes 6231 “toll-exempt” passes, 2761 passes for “emergency” vehicles, and 791 government passes.