July 15, 2015 - Gwinnett County - I-85 HOT lane tolling equipment includes enforcement cameras, traffic-counting loops buried in the pavement and an antenna. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Drivers on I-75 must decide whether new toll lanes are worth it

Georgia is gambling billions of dollars on optional toll lanes as the traffic relief tonic for metro Atlanta — opening more than 50 miles of them by 2018.

The plan is to create a 94-mile network of these “express lanes” by 2040, using as much as a quarter to a third of all the money designated for widening roads or improving intersections in the Atlanta region during those 25 years.

Whether it will pay off, however, depends on whether drivers embrace the concept of paying to avoid the traffic they’re causing. The state has not yet set the toll range for the new lanes, but it will vary according to the amount of traffic in the lane to keep vehicle speeds flowing at 45 mph or greater. Early studies assumed a floor of 50 cents per trip and a ceiling of 90 cents per mile. So the price of a 10-mile trip on the express lane could vary between 50 cents and $9.

For most drivers, that could be a lot — as much as two gallons of gas at today’s prices.But if the ever-increasing use of the I-85 HOT lanes is any indication, the state’s gamble may pay off. Hundreds of thousands of drivers in Gwinnett County have become resigned to using the HOT lanes, and transportation planners believe the same will happen after an initial ramp-up period for the new toll lanes they’re building now: I-75/575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties; I-75 in Henry and Clayton counties; and an extension of the HOT lanes on I-85 in Gwinnett.

'Death or tolling, it's the same process'

Most drivers will stop short of saying they actually like toll lanes, but since 2011, average weekday trips have more than tripled from about 7,000 to 23,000 on the I-85 HOT lanes.

“People go, ‘There’s actually a benefit to this. I might be mad about it, but I’ll still use it,’” said Bert Brantley, deputy executive director of the State Road and Tollway Authority. “It’s like the five stages of grief — denial, anger, eventually you get to acceptance. Death or tolling, it’s the same process.”

Even so, toll critics abound.

“It’s just sort of like forcing people to do stuff they don’t want to do,” said Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon, whose city lies along the path of the Northwest Corridor toll lane project on I-75. “They’ll just say this is the cost of doing things. But it is a hidden tax increase.”

Pausing beside his car at a shopping center off Steve Reynolds Boulevard and I-85 in Duluth last week, Ron Fuchs said he refuses to drive in the HOT lane.

“I feel like it’s an elitist thing for the wealthy people who can afford to use it,” Fuchs said. “I feel like it should be an HOV lane, instead of people who just blow gas. I believe in economy and not wasting.”

The I-85 HOT lane in Gwinnett was a sort of trial balloon for the state to test public reaction to a permanent toll lane. That project stumbled out of the gate when it opened in 2011, with many people incensed over the decision to convert an HOV lane to a toll lane. So few drivers were using it that the state had to drastically cut the rate during off-peak times to 1 cent per mile.

Now, though, drivers are choosing the HOT lane so often that the state hiked the price to travel the whole 16-mile stretch to a record-setting $11 one morning in April just to keep the traffic flowing. The average peak period fare in the morning (between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m.) is $3.60.

So popular is the lane that it’s been getting bogged down with traffic more and more often. The state has even introduced incentives this year to lure toll customers out of the lane during its busiest times so it’ll keep moving at the optimal 45 mph or greater speed. By shifting their commute to off-peak hours, telecommuting or using transit to free up traffic, Peach Pass users can now earn free toll credits.

Transportation officials are staking the region’s future upon the I-85 HOT lane’s success, and the success of similar projects in other cities.

Georgia lags behind other states on toll roads

Before the I-85 HOT lanes, Georgia had mostly shunned toll roads, while other states were building mile upon mile of them for 50 years. Back in the late 1950’s, states like Pennsylvania, Florida and Texas began to levy tolls as a financing mechanism to pay for the construction of turnpikes.

In those states and several others, at least two generations of drivers grew up using toll roads.

Not so in Georgia.

This state adopted the strategy much later in 1993 when it used an across-the-board toll to finance Ga. 400. The toll booths were finally torn down last year.

But state transportation planners are using tolls for a entirely different purpose now, State Road and Tollway Authority Executive Director Chris Tomlinson said.

“What’s happened now in the United States in general, and in Georgia in particular with the HOT lane, is looking at tolls not only for finance but for road management,” Tomlinson said.

These toll lanes of the future are being billed as a reliable travel option for drivers — and notably not a panacea for traffic congestion — in a region where achieving a predictable trip time on any given day is a laughable notion.

Drivers will now have a fast track to bypass the traffic, when they’re willing to pay for it.

Jill Goldberg, the recently appointed “toll ambassador” for Georgia Department of Transportation, puts it this way: “I like to think about it as a little bit like insurance. Only better than insurance, because you don’t have to pay if you don’t use it.”

As Atlanta Regional Commission planner John Orr sees it, tolled lanes are really the only option for interstate relief in metro Atlanta.

“Even if we had the money, which we don’t, we’re not going to be able to add enough lanes to the freeway (to relieve traffic),” Orr said.

Any new lanes would fill up within a few years, as they have consistently done in Atlanta in years past, because you can’t build your way out of the growth and traffic congestion with the limited financial resources available to the state, he said.

Optional toll lanes have become attractive for planners because at least a few extra lanes can be squeezed in, and the construction loans can be financed in part by toll revenues. Plus, transit-riders can travel in them for free, which in theory will attract more ridership on Xpress buses.

'I think this will help. I really do.'

At a Rotary Club meeting in Henry County Monday, local business people seemed to quickly warm to the idea of the I-75 South Metro Express lanes. Henry Dick, a sign manufacturer from McDonough, said he will use them “all the time,” for work.

“Can you be done with them next month?” he quipped. “That’s what I’m wondering.”

Jeff Cooper, who lives and works in McDonough’s Eagles Landing community, said he won’t use the toll lanes because he doesn’t have an interstate commute. But he hopes others will, particularly the beach-and-Disney-bound tourists headed south. As of late last year, the Peach Pass can also be used on toll roads in Florida (Sun Pass) and North Carolina (Quick Pass), and vice versa.

“I’m hoping it would get Florida people through without affecting the local people as much,” Cooper said.

Brad Fawcett, of Griffin, said he uses the I-85 HOT lane regularly because he’s always in a hurry to pick up and deliver parts around the city for his construction industry job. He’s glad that toll lanes are coming to the south side of Atlanta.

“We’ve gotten behind on building roads because so many people have moved into the area,” Fawcett said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but I think this will help, I really do.”

Time will tell. But in focus groups and public meetings, people seem more willing to accept the new toll lanes because they are just that - new — and not a conversion of an existing HOV lane like the I-85 HOT lane, said Tomlinson.

Even so, using a toll lane on a single stretch of highway is one thing. Using them on a network of toll lanes around metro Atlanta is another. Brian Gist, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which advocates for more transit and rail investment, said people may not react so well when multiple legs of their commute are tolled.

He thinks toll lanes should not be the region’s primary strategy for commuting.

“Toll lanes are not an everyday option for everyone,” Gist said. “We need a solution you can use irrespective of income on a regular basis.”

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