Gridlock Guy: HOT lanes are getting even hotter

Last week with many groans we saw a new record price set for the Interstate 85 HOT Express Lanes during morning drive. The price for the full trip between Old Peachtree Road and Shallowford Road on I-85 southbound reached $11 topping the previous record of $10.

I asked Bert Brantley the deputy executive director of the State Road & Tollway Authority a few questions about the event.

Q: Why did we recently see the Express Lane rate hit $11?

A: The I-85 Express Lanes once again set new usage highs in March, both in terms of number of trips during a month (646,000+) and average daily weekday usage (24,500+).

Our tolling system not only looks at current conditions, but also recognizes trends and we continue to see more and more trips in the Express Lanes. In order to keep the lane moving, prices have to increase to keep up with the increased demand.

Only 6 percent of trips cost the maximum amount. 94 percent are either shorter or not during the peak of the peak morning rush hour. The average toll paid is only $2.48, so people fixate on the $11 number but the reality is very few people actually pay that amount.

Q: What are the contributing factors in the pricing?

A: The top factors in pricing are average speeds and amount of volume in the express lane. We have a goal of achieving an average speed of 45 mph for trips during rush hour. This is an average, so some trips will be higher than 45 early and late in the rush hour (the shoulders), and some will be less than 45 during the peak of the peak. When we start to see speeds consistently dip below 45, our data analysis shows the reason — increased usage, just as we saw again in March. Remember that when the lanes first opened in October 2011, we were seeing 7,000 trips per day. People were complaining about the lanes being “empty.” Now we are at 24,500 trips per day, and the lanes are full during the peak.

Q: I assume that increased traffic on I-85 and a surge in electric vehicles using the express lanes have contributed. Is that correct?

A: No question about it. As the economy continues to recover, more people are working and are driving during the peak commute period. And the metro Atlanta region continues to be a national leader in electric vehicle sales because of the favorable tax treatment that buyers get. We hear this from customers all the time, as traffic gets worse in the general purpose lanes they are more and more willing to use the express lanes. We also hear from customers who say they are shifting their commuting behavior, either earlier or later in the rush hour to avoid the peak of the peak. Most feel they get a better value from the express lanes when the price is a little lower and the lane is free flowing, rather than coming through when the price is pegged out at the max rate, too many cars are in the lane resulting in some areas of stop-and-go conditions.

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