I-75 Henry County project

Highway rules could breed confusion

Pay attention, drivers.

The state Department of Transportation finally seems on track to build a system of special optional highway lanes crossing metro Atlanta, if contracts are signed as planned in the coming months.

The lanes are designed to offer choice and efficiency. But with varying sets of rules, the proposed system is decidedly patchwork, raising concerns about driver confusion and perhaps even safety.

Consider this:

  • The I-85 HOT lane in Gwinnett County lets three-person and larger carpools ride free. Two-person carpools and solo drivers can ride in the lane, but they must pay.
  • The HOV lane that feeds into the HOT lane, however, does allow two-person carpools to travel for free, but no solo drivers at any price.
  • No carpools will drive free in the I-75/I-575 express toll lanes that will meet up in Cobb County with the HOV lanes, if all goes as proposed — just transit buses. Similar express lanes would also be built alongside I-75 in Henry County.

“This is just additional confusion,” said Christian Stevens, a medical salesman who lives in Canton, near the I-75/I-575 project. Stevens estimates he drives 1,000 miles a week on Georgia roads. He is an activist for the National Motorists’ Association, which helps people fight tickets.

The different sets of rules are an issue, echoed Susan Chrysler, director of research at the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa.

“I think it is likely to cause confusion among unfamiliar drivers, or even the casual user,” Chrysler said. “Because there’s just too much remember.”

State Department of Transportation and tollway officials say they know there may be some confusion, and they will plan to develop clear road signs and to sponsor a significant public awareness campaign to educate drivers. They say there were reasons for different rules in different areas, including the need to make sure each project’s operations could be funded.

State officials, at the moment, do not plan to unify the rules, even on the toll roads, which drivers pay to use to avoid heavy traffic.

“Constructing these projects, each project in each corridor in the way that we have, is absolutely the best use of our limited resources in order to achieve specific goals: improving mobility, reducing congestion and adding reliability along corridors that don’t have that,” said Toby Carr, the state’s transportation planning director, who reports to Gov. Nathan Deal.

Complexity risks confusion

All these different types of lanes are new tools planners are using to try to combat congestion by allowing drivers a choice. Commuters can still stay in the regular lanes, but the special lanes are intended to move faster. HOV lanes cater to free carpools, hoping to reduce the number of cars on the road. On optional toll lanes, drivers in a pinch can pay for less congestion. Those toll lanes may allow carpoolers to drive free — that’s called a HOT lane — or not.

The new tools make trouble for a key tenet of highway design: to make travel seamless and intuitive whenever possible.

Even the best drivers go so fast they have little time to analyze and decide. They also go places they aren’t familiar with, especially on interstates, the site of all Atlanta’s HOV and HOT lanes. And planners must anticipate the lowest common denominator of driver — the ignorant, the infirm, the confused, the distracted. Their mistakes could greatly harm others.

“It’s worse than you think it is,” said Chrysler, who supports toll lanes in the right situations. “I would guess a majority of your drivers now probably don’t know how to use the HOV lane.”

Added levels of confusion affect road safety, she said, because people stop, slow down or weave as they try too late to make decisions.

Metro Atlanta’s plan “does not sound easy to me,” said Mark Burris, an associate professor at Texas A&M University who studies tolls and choice. “It sounds difficult, but not impossible. Just difficult.”

“I think it’s confusing for the users,” said Brian Gist, a lawyer at the Southern Environmental Law Center, who would prefer toll lanes to allow free carpools, for environmental reasons. “I think the fact you can’t stick to one particular carpooling standard is going to further discourage carpool formation.”

Ginger Goodin, a national expert on optional toll lanes, said in an e-mail that “the optimal approach would certainly be consistency to make sure drivers aren’t confused.” However, she wrote, the reality is projects often develop over time under varied conditions. “And since they primarily serve repetitive users who are local and [use] consistent routes, then drivers figure out the differences.”

Every month, the state Department of Public Safety pulls over a couple dozen or more cars in the I-85 HOT lane that are not paying the toll though they have only one or two people. (Sgt. Tony Pilcher believes that’s fewer violators than on the old HOV lane.) In that lane, three-person carpools may ride free, but not two-person carpools or solo drivers.

State data doesn’t break out how many of those violators are two-person carpools claiming they thought they could ride free. That happens, said Pilcher, but there’s no way to know how many are genuinely confused or just trying to get out of a ticket.

The road to here

The federal government, which jump-started Atlanta’s I-85 HOT lane under President George W. Bush, has no policy requiring seamlessness. The idea of optional toll lanes is so new that experts are still learning lessons from new lanes.

In a statement, the Federal Highway Administration said that it doesn’t impose “one-size-fits-all” recommendations. However, it said, “FHWA would encourage states to review if a single strategy is beneficial to the entire region.”

Although Georgia’s projects are studied as a system, the funding that really green-lighted each special lane came about separately. Sometimes changes were made to assure a project could be funded, according to documents. Making the projects happen was of paramount importance in order to provide mobility and choice, state officials said.

“Those corridors that we are addressing, if you don’t do something now, in 20 years you’re looking at gridlock full-stop,” said Karlene Barron, a spokeswoman for the state DOT. Even in the regular lanes beside the toll lanes, state studies predict the I-75/I-575 traffic will run slightly faster because of the addition.

On the optional toll lanes, the fee will rise and fall with traffic congestion, to keep the lane free-flowing. The toll may help fund the lane’s operations, but it’s not meant as a cash cow. Current funds could never build enough regular lanes to offer similar reliable flow long-term, state officials say.

Like HOV lanes all over the country, Atlanta’s HOV lanes were developed as two-person carpool lanes, in the 1990s.

When the I-85 HOT lane project was awarded in 2008, it converted an existing HOV lane. But the HOV lane was well used, so there was only one way to make space for the solo toll-payers and still offer free flow: getting rid of the two-person carpools. It turned into a three-person carpool lane.

The proposed toll projects on I-75/I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties and on I-75 in Henry County will build additional lanes. They originally were planned to accept three-person carpools free, too.

But when DOT was faced with a funding gap in the I-75/I-575 project in 2010, state policymakers eliminated the free carpools. In 2012, regional plans also changed the I-75 project in Henry County from allowing three-person carpools to allowing no carpools.

The estimated revenue gained from eliminating those I-75/I-575 carpools and making space for more toll payers is more than $100 million over the course of 50-plus years, said Darryl VanMeter, DOT’s state innovative program delivery engineer.

In interviews, state officials emphasized a range of benefits from eliminating free carpools, including the simplicity for both drivers and police, who don’t have to figure out occupancy numbers to give tickets.

There’s good and bad to each policy. No carpools means more toll-payers, which means more revenue, and perhaps a lower toll fee spread among more people, state officials pointed out. They added that carpoolers sharing a ride will still get a benefit, since they’ll likely split the cost of the toll with fellow passengers, a savings that can add up over time.

On the downside, axing free carpools could mean more congestion for drivers in the regular lanes. State estimates compared the I-75/I-575 project with carpools and without carpools. Results predict more traffic for the regular lanes — in most spots, an addition of up to 2 percent at rush hour — if free carpools aren’t allowed.

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