Are HOT lanes a good idea for Georgia highways? Yes

Moving toward tolling more roads in state is inevitable and logical.

It’s crunch time for congestion relief in Atlanta and Georgia, as a stretch of high-occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes becomes high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes soon. It’s also just the beginning: The 16-mile, federally funded demonstration project on I-85 could pave the way for enhanced transportation funding and a cost-effective public transit network for the entire metro region.

Even as the I-85 project opens next week, the state Department of Transportation is scheduled to seek a request for proposals for the I-75/575 West by Northwest Corridor project, a public-private partnership that also will involve toll lanes. Moving toward tolling more roads in Georgia is inevitable, and it’s a logical step to convert the managed-lane network that would have been under-utilized HOV lanes into revenue-generating HOT lanes. So, too, is embracing private investment.

Why logical? Because automobile fuel efficiency is shrinking fuel tax revenue, with taxes unable to keep pace with the soaring cost of repairs and maintenance, let alone infrastructure improvements and expansions. Plus, Georgia historically is a loser state, getting back just 85 percent of the fuel tax revenue it has sent to the federal government. Now, congressional leaders are pledging to limit projects to available funding.

When it comes to congestion on metro Atlanta’s highways, timing is an enormous part of the problem. One of the greatest benefits of tolling — especially variable tolls — is that it motivates commuters to evaluate their trip time and route.

HOT lanes are not just “Lexus” lanes that favor rich motorists. Getting stuck in traffic can be costly for the traveler rushing to the airport, but those who have no urgent business are most likely to routinely take their chances in regular lanes. They provide an alternative and a choice for all motorists, from the mom trying to avoid the day care center late penalty to the plumber making the appointment on time. And each driver who chooses to pay to use the HOT lanes opens up capacity in the “regular” lanes.

HOT lanes also guarantee a travel speed to users. The goal for I-85’s HOT lanes is 45 miles per hour. That will be reinforced by electronic tolling, which means no toll booths will slow vehicles, as well as by a toll that varies based on demand, known as congestion pricing.

One of the greatest advantages is that HOT lanes can serve essentially as a dedicated lane for public transportation. Buses become more attractive to commuters who opt to leave their cars at home because they can expect a reliable trip time. Enabling bus drivers to pre-empt traffic lights once off the highway and on urban streets will help further. The network will work for motorists and transit riders and is a functional, flexible and more cost-effective investment than rail transit.

It’s long past time to question whether HOT lanes will help relieve congestion. Now is the time to push further. Anyone who has done the rush-hour drive in the I-75 HOV lane that ends at I-285 in Cobb County is aware of the frustration of being in a lane that begins in congestion and ends in congestion. Georgia must not stop at 16 miles, but go on to a seamless, regional express-lane network.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

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