By on November 23, 2011

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.


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21 Comments on “Georgia: Feds Deny Relief to HOT Lane Gridlock...”

  • avatar

    This whole project is utter bullshit. On a weekend, the toll to go from downtown to the end of the toll lane is ~$.75… until there is an accident. Then it shoots up to over 3 bucks. Nice. Never mind you’ve got to pay for the transponder monthly just to use the thing, the tolls are assessed based on congestion and not a flat rate.

    At least give the people some lube when you take the stuff they paid for, then charge them back to use it.

  • avatar

    this is rare, for me to say, but I agree 100% with the Feds. The road was built on borrowed money and if the tolls go away, we all pay for it. People want new roads but don’t want to pay gas taxes or tolls? suck it up and enjoy the congestion or open your wallets for better serivce. For people who want government run like private industry, well here it is, baby.

    • 0 avatar

      Was the road built on borrowed money, or was the toll collection system built on borrowed money? I don’t think you need to agree with the Feds here, because nowhere in the article does it say that the funds are to pay for the creation of lanes. Any way you look at it, this still has nothing to do with properly run private industry. Were it market based, the toll trolls at the SRTA would all be fired by now due to lack of sales. Price isn’t set in a vacuum. If not enough people are willing to pay it, it must be lowered or the product must be withdrawn. That’s how private industry is supposed to work, although it may seem a foreign concept under this corrupt regime.

      • 0 avatar

        Classic double talk from a distorted viewpoint. The toll system was put in place to pay for the roads and their maintenance. The toll collection system is probably more automated than we think (most modern toll roads are going with the cash vending machine styles) so the human cost isn’t that significant. Ultimately toll roads are used just as money-making devices for the government in lieu of raising taxes or putting up a bond. Welcome to a privatized world. Sucks to be a capitalist when the capital turns against you.

        PS: The pricing maybe too high but the cost of the toll is fundamentally still the same. Once the cost is met the toll should be lifted not windfall profits for years to come.

      • 0 avatar

        The toll system was put in place to pay for the roads and their maintenance

        No, it wasn’t. Vehicles with at least three passengers are exempt from the tolls. This is an experiment to see whether providing a faster travel alternative that is expensive to drivers who don’t carpool but free of charge to those who do will result in lower congestion overall.

        In my opinion, this federal fixation on 3+ person carpools is misguided. As it stands, the vast majority of cars include one occupant, so it would be a considerable improvement if many would carry just two.

        If the choice is between having a 3-person rule or failure, then I don’t see why anyone would deliberately choose failure. On the other hand, the folks in Atlanta took the federal grant knowing that those strings were attached, so they should have probably had this debate before they took the money if they knew that it would be a problem. And they should have known that it would be a problem.

    • 0 avatar

      As a person who lives a short distance from the HOT lanes. I can tell you, they did not add lanes. What they did was, take the HOV lane and spend a ton of cash to create a HOT mess.

      • 0 avatar

        Somehow I doubt this will be enough to enlighten Xeranar. Perhaps he will realize that his being completely wrong has something to do with who has the distorted viewpoint. I seriously doubt it though. He can no more afford to see the truth and use logic than he can afford to buy the country and evict all the loathsome humans he thinks are messing it up by living.

    • 0 avatar

      Sundowner, I would encourage you to reassess your opinion.

      The road was not built on borrowed money. The road and lanes existed before the HOT was added. The State and the Feds took one of our lanes and turned it into a toll lane.

      As a Gwinnett county resident, I assure you that this issue is complete crap. Many of my neighbors commutes have increased by 30 min to an hour each direction because our road now has one less lane. It sucks.

  • avatar

    I was in graduate school in Atlanta in the early ’80s. One day during afternoon rush hour a fellow student drove a Chinese student out I-75 north of the perimeter to see a used car. The Chinese student wanted to go back the next day at the same time so he could photograph the miles-long line of cars creeping along. The only result of efforts to reduce traffic congestion over the intervening decades have been more expressway and more traffic. I came up with a way to solve Atlanta’s traffic congestion problem years ago: start closing expressway lanes.

    • 0 avatar

      Wouldn’t sticking people in concentration camps be more effective, or is that step 2?

    • 0 avatar

      Not sure what your point is. I mean the population of Atlanta and the surrounding area has increased exponentially. An increase in traffic would be expected in that scenario, but they have managed to keep traffic tolerable. We were around 20 on the worst traffic location in the US, so not bad considering.
      The HOT lanes are overly thought out to the point that they don’t work in the real world, or at least not in the reality of Atlanta.
      Last point, why are you talking about I-75? The HOT lane in the article is on I-85 only.

      • 0 avatar

        why are you talking about I-75?

        He was making a broader point that freeways create congestion, rather than relieve it.

        And he is correct. Traffic acts like a gas — it expands to fill the space. A highway network will facilitate and encourage sprawl, creating a feedback loop of congestion that can’t be fixed with more roads.

        Highways are to the modern world what rivers and oceans were to the pre-industrial age and what railroads were to the 19th and early 20th century. They create transit corridors that encourage development along the corridors while simultaneously pulling development away from the old cores, which leads to the old centers becoming blighted. This has happened, time and time again, and the results have not been cheap.

        That isn’t to say that this specific implementation of the HOT lanes has been a success. But the old ways haven’t been working, either, and this was meant to be a federally-subsidized experiment to see whether they could encourage more car pooling through tolling. The lanes are toll-free for those who have three or more passengers; they are obviously trying to use the roads to move the same number of people but with fewer cars.

  • avatar

    Didn’t the Soviet Union have these sort of express lanes in Moscow, like 30 years ago?
    Although no system is perfect, city after city in North America is pouring BILLIONS of tax dollars into transit, with mixed results. To this day, NYC and perhaps Chicago are the only 2 cities that I am aware of that have managed to budge the needle to anywhere near HALF the daily commuters taking transit.
    I love the logic of the anti-car lobby: don’t add a lane to an expressway because too many people will use it, but let’s spend a billion dollars on a street car line that will run 80% empty 80% of the time……

    • 0 avatar

      At least the street car line has the potential to be more useful in the future. More expressway lanes is just bailing out a sinking boat.
      If they do it right, a government’s decisions should be made with consideration for future development, rather than a nostalgic longing for the old days.

  • avatar

    Variable congestion pricing has a place. The problem is the HOV requirement of 3+ people / vehicle. That’s too high of a cost for many.

    If the goal is to reduce congestion and keep traffic moving (and not neo-Marxist behavior control), allow all vehicles willing to pay the congestion based cash ‘Express Lane’ price.

    Add a refund mechanism – if the ‘Express Lane’ doesn’t move at 50mph (or from point a to b in x time), you get a graduated refund.

    • 0 avatar

      If the goal is to reduce congestion and keep traffic moving (and not neo-Marxist behavior control), allow all vehicles willing to pay the congestion based cash ‘Express Lane’ price.

      They already can. Cars with one or two occupants can use the lane if they pay. The 3+ person carpools can use the lane free of charge.

      • 0 avatar

        They already can. Cars with one or two occupants can use the lane if they pay.

        OK. Missed that – didn’t read deeply.

        Well, The Newspaper could have been more clear. A deeper question is whether the HOV lanes are efficiently occupied during congested periods. The price may need tweaking… I’m doubtful The Newspaper would be willing to dig that far.

      • 0 avatar

        The price may need tweaking…

        As noted, the governor is seeking a price cut.

        My guess is that someone overestimated the potential revenue in order to justify applying for the grant that paid for this. (Presumably, the federal grant only covered a portion of the conversion cost.) As it turns out, not very many people are willing to pay that much to use those lanes, plus there aren’t many people who can or will get a 3+ person carpool. So as a result, the lane goes largely unused, and it doesn’t generate enough revenue to pay for itself.

        The problem for the feds is that this lane was previously used as a 2+ person carpool-only lane. Now, a 2-person carpool has to pay the same toll that a solo driver would pay.

        It wouldn’t surprise me if the end result was to decrease the amount of carpooling, since the two-person carpools have lost the benefits that they used to get from the old HOV lane. But if the feds agree to reducing the requirement back to two occupants, then they’ll have spent a lot of money only to have effectively created a rich person’s lane in the middle of the interstate that does nothing to change carpooling. Not everyone thought this one through.

  • avatar

    This should be a good lesson on using fees and taxes to change behavior.

    • 0 avatar

      Incentives change behavior. Period.

      Now, this being a government agency and a road being a difficult market to price, I have serious doubts about this policy being done efficiently. Prices may be out of line.

      Congestion pricing has a place. That said, the local populace needs to watch their political masters. Some areas (due to legislation / nimby-ism / fundamentalist environmentalists) have priced new roads out of consideration (Hello SoCal!)

  • avatar
    Chicago Dude

    OK, so is this something like:

    The Feds: Some dude that knows how to get stuff into an appropriations bill has a crazy idea. If anyone wants some cash, well, some dude has a crazy idea…

    Georgia: Did someone say FREE MONEY?

    The Feds: No.

    Georgia: I’ll take that FREE MONEY!!!

    The Feds: Here is the cash, but it’s not free.

    Georgia: Thanks for the cash, you socialist scum!

    Georgia: Wait a second, this crazy idea sucks!

    The Feds: We told you it was crazy. If it was completely reasonable, we wouldn’t have had to give anyone cash to get them to try it.

    Georgia: If we promise to tone down the socialism rants for a few minutes, can we turn this back into FREE MONEY?

    The Feds: It was never free money.

    Georgia: Please?

    The Feds: No.

    Georgia: Damn you socialist capitalists!

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