Cheap tolls during pandemic: State’s pain is motorists’ gain

Revenue from metro Atlanta toll lanes has plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic. Lighter traffic has made the lanes less appealing to many motorists. (FILE PHOTO BY HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)
Revenue from metro Atlanta toll lanes has plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic. Lighter traffic has made the lanes less appealing to many motorists. (FILE PHOTO BY HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

One side effect of the coronavirus pandemic has been a substantial decrease in metro Atlanta traffic. At the height of sheltering in place in Georgia, traffic was down as much as 50% on some state highways and interstates.

Traffic is still down 20% from normal. And at least one state agency – the one that oversees metro Atlanta's growing network of toll lanes – hopes it picks up soon.

The State Road and Tollway Authority expected to take in about $46 million in toll revenue in the fiscal year that ends June 30, Executive Director Chris Tomlinson told a Senate panel last week. But it likely will fall about $13 million short of that goal.

That’s because light traffic during the pandemic has made the toll lanes less appealing to many motorists – why pay to bypass rush-hour traffic jams that aren’t nearly as bad as they used to be? And because the tolls fluctuate depending on traffic – the lighter the traffic, the less the toll – SRTA is taking a big financial hit.

“We’ve seen an unprecedented decline in toll revenue,” Tomlinson told lawmakers.

Under a proposed 2021 budget, SRTA would rely on $10 million from the Georgia Department of Transportation to help plug the budget hole. It also will use about $3 million of its $8 million budget reserve. And it will cut travel, contracting and other expenses.

Of course, SRTA’s pain is motorists’ gain. In February, a full-length trip on the I-85 express lanes in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties could cost $15 at rush hour. Recently, it’s been about $4 – and Tomlinson said that’s a sharp increase from a month ago.

In the long run, Tomlinson believes traffic will return to local highways, and with it will come higher tolls and revenue. Fall traffic volumes – when schools are back in session – may offer clues as to how long that will take.

But with many economists predicting a lengthy economic recovery, relatively cheap tolls may be a reality for the foreseeable future.

“We hope the traffic comes back sooner than predicted,” Tomlinson told the Senate panel.

About the Author

ajc.com