Toll-road experiment imposes rationing via cost

NOTE: This contains some material posted earlier on this blog. It is posted here as the electronic version of today’s AJC column.

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Some traffic-reduction schemes are better than others. A deep recession, for example, seems to do the trick nicely, although for a host of other reasons it’s not a recommended approach.

In July, for example, Americans drove 6.7 billion fewer miles than they had a year earlier, a reduction of 2.5 percent, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That’s the fewest number of miles driven in the month of July since 2002.

According to an annual report by the Texas Transportation Institute, the reduction has been even more stark here in Atlanta. According to the TTI report, drivers in the metro region drove 9.5 percent fewer miles last year than they did five years earlier, a trend that would have been unthinkable back in 2005.

Thanks to that reduction, Atlanta traffic congestion has “improved” to 13th worst in the country, down from fifth. Apparently, when people don’t have jobs, a car or money to spend on gasoline, restaurants and shopping, they drive less, leaving more room on the highways for everybody else.

Which brings us to another less-than-perfect traffic reduction scheme, the so-called “managed lanes” about to open on I-85 north of the Perimeter. Here’s the theory: You take two existing lanes of interstate highway, an expensive piece of infrastructure that has already been built and paid for through gasoline taxes. Then you cordon those lanes off, allowing access only to those who are willing and able to pay extra to use what they’ve already paid for once.

The idea, we’re told, is that even in the worst traffic, those who can afford the extra cost will be able to buy themselves a free-flowing trip at a minimum of 45 mph. (Transit buses using the lane will also experience a less crowded, more predictable trip.)

According to AJC reporter Ariel Hart, state studies and experts predict that by reducing traffic in the managed lane, the toll is expected to squeeze an increased number of cars into the remaining untolled lanes, which isn’t going to make commuters in general very happy.

Like any experiment, the tolling project will suffer its share of problems in the early going, exacerbated by the makeshift nature of converting a lane to a purpose it was not designed to fulfill. My problem with the idea is more fundamental: Even if it works exactly as designed, I question a system that reserves better government service for those citizens able or willing to pay more, particularly when those discouraged from using it have already helped to pay for it.

In this case, the revenue collected through tolls on I-85 won’t pay for the cameras and other equipment installed to convert the lane. It won’t even cover the cost of operating that equipment. In other words, the average commuter, stuck in traffic with nothing but a sea of red brake lights ahead, can look to his or her left and see a free-flowing lane that he or she paid taxes to build, using equipment that he or she paid to install and operate, and know that by design he or she has been priced out of using it.

And this is supposedly a good thing. It is such a good thing that the DOT plans to install a network of such lanes throughout the region, at a cost to Georgia taxpayers of billions of dollars. In most cases they will convert existing HOV lanes. In the case of the I-75 and I-575 corridor north of the Perimeter, the state is seeking bids from private companies to build an extra lane from scratch and operate it as a managed toll lane.

Once again, though, the project won’t come close to paying for itself. Taxpayers will have to kick in an estimated $300 million to subsidize it.

How and when did this get accepted as a good idea?

– Jay Bookman

43 comments Add your comment

Granny Godzilla

September 28th, 2011
7:35 am

To that 300 million add the boondoggle stadium in Gwinnett County and you get a big hole in Georgia taxpayer pockets.

Other examples fellow bloggers?

Jm

September 28th, 2011
7:37 am

Headline, true. I won’t quibble with the other details.

Prices are the best method to allocate a scarce asset.

stands for decibels

September 28th, 2011
7:43 am

the average commuter, stuck in traffic with nothing but a sea of red brake lights ahead, can look to his or her left and see a free-flowing lane that he or she paid taxes to build, using equipment that he or she paid to install and operate, and know that by design he or she has been priced out of using it.

There you go empathizing again.

stands for decibels

September 28th, 2011
7:46 am

Taxpayers will have to kick in an estimated $300 million to subsidize it.

On the plus side–they’ll have lots of time to sit and think of how that 300 million could’ve been better spent.

Adam

September 28th, 2011
7:55 am

REPOST ALERT :D

Guy Incognito

September 28th, 2011
8:04 am

Can’t wait for the Trolley that all those thousands of tourists will use to go up and down Auburn Ave. I’m sure it will be a HUGE revenue generator

TaxPayer

September 28th, 2011
8:14 am

How and when did this get accepted as a good idea?

It’s the Republican way. Haven’t you heard. It’s what the voting residents of Georgia want. There’s more to come. Much more. By the way, have you heard how the Republicans here in Georgia plan on paying back the money they borrowed from the Fed to cover the standard 26 week unemployment benefit that was once paid by corporations here in Georgia. They’re taking money from Medicaid and also reducing unemployment benefits because that’s the only way to avoid making corporations pay what they were supposed to pay anyway. We’ll be able to compete with the wages offered to Chinese workers in no time. No time at all thanks to the hard work of our elected officials. And we will not need to worry about a migrant workforce because they will not be able to afford to go anywhere else.

ByteMe

September 28th, 2011
8:16 am

Taxpayers will have to kick in an estimated $300 million to subsidize it.

Won’t this just make the heads explode of all those people who complain that the state needs to stop subsidizing MARTA because it loses money.

TaxPayer

September 28th, 2011
8:17 am

On the brighter side, I bought gas yesterday for $2.98/gallon.

Union

September 28th, 2011
8:17 am

as a frequent traveler.. i have seen this done in other states..dont know all the financial details as to the revenue, etc. i do know it seems to help the traffic flow a little..

the analogy it seems.. can be used for marta as well.. could it not? continually mismanaged funds to the point of financial disaster on more than one occasion.. yet is marta not a tax payer supported project as well? i have ridden the marta train.. maybe twice? yet taxes still subsidize all riders on there that i never get any personal use out of..

not saying marta is a bad thing.. it does help people get from point a to point b.. and everyone that rides on there is one less vehicle i have to contend with on the streets of atlanta…

Mighty Righty

September 28th, 2011
8:18 am

A typical government idea. It will make traffic worse. It will increase pollution. It will cost millions that could be better used do something else. It will accomplish nothing. The person or persons who okayed this should be fired and put in blocks on Peachtree.

DebbieDoRight

September 28th, 2011
8:20 am

How and when did this get accepted as a good idea?

Ever since Sonny Do decided to take over the DOT and put one of his flunkies in charge things have headed downhill.

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Gov. Sonny Perdue offered long-suffering commuters a glimmer of hope five years ago when he announced a mammoth building program aimed at speeding up improvements to metro Atlanta’s overburdened road system.

But instead of relief, commuters have seen a power struggle over control of the state road-building system, as well as accusations of shoddy financial management, charges of reckless overspending, and ultimately, a slowdown of projects to ease congestion.

Gena Evans, the much-criticized commissioner Perdue brought in to take over the DOT in 2007, called the DOT problems “a disaster.”

“They are going to be fighting this for several years to come,” Evans said.

Perdue announced his $15.5 billion “Fast Forward” program in 2004 to much fanfare, with metro Atlanta officials calling it a good first step in attacking the area’s traffic congestion.

“We are spending what we must to solve the problem, but we’re not spending more than we can afford,” the governor said at the time.

A financial morass

The state had historically tried to address the problem through one of its most politically powerful and independent agencies, the DOT. Through much of the 1980s, ‘90s and 2000s, the economy was strong and gas tax revenue flowed to the DOT. It was considered by statehouse watchers to be one of the last vestiges of pork-barrel politics, and its operations were a mystery to many legislators.

One of the problems, some officials complained, was that it took too long for roads to be planned and built. In turn, DOT board members, often retired legislators, griped year after year that they needed more money to build all the highways and bridges Atlanta and Georgia required.

Perdue’s “Fast Forward” effort aimed to speed up construction of carpool lanes, widen suburban and rural roads, and improve interstate highways across Georgia.

Within a few years, auditors said DOT spending accelerated to a pace that far exceeded Perdue’s plan.

DOT payments to contractors rose from $821 million in fiscal 2004 to $2.15 billion in 2008. The department’s balance plummeted from $1.4 billion in 2004 to just $360 million by 2007.

“We were well on our way to insolvency,” said Perdue in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Perdue said he wasn’t getting good answers from DOT officials about how the money was being spent. Former DOT board chairman David Doss, however, said the governor’s staff was told early on that state officials had underestimated the cost of the work that needed to be done.

State auditors were brought in, and they and Evans released reports suggesting the department was heading toward monstrous shortfalls.

ragnar danneskjold

September 28th, 2011
8:21 am

“Rationing via cost” is normally described as a “market solution.” Nothing wrong with experimenting with market solutions, although that is bane to the overlords.

Misty Fyed

September 28th, 2011
8:22 am

Oh My… Is this what it feels like? I actually agree whole heartedly with Jay on this.

Keep Up the Good Fight!

September 28th, 2011
8:23 am

Jay, are you suggesting that these new toll lanes are really just another wealth transfer scheme from the average Joe Schmoe to the rich? Why that’s just wealth warfare! Of course it would really be unfair to require those using the lanes to pay the true costs of even all of the upgrades. See they are on their way to work on job creatin’.

DebbieDoRight

September 28th, 2011
8:25 am

TaxPayer:By the way, have you heard how the Republicans here in Georgia plan on paying back the money they borrowed from the Fed to cover the standard 26 week unemployment benefit that was once paid by corporations here in Georgia. They’re taking money from Medicaid and also reducing unemployment benefits because that’s the only way to avoid making corporations pay what they were supposed to pay anyway

Good God TP! I didn’t think it was possible, but you’re trying to tell me that the elected officials in Georgia have gotten even MORE asinine, ridiculous and stupid? Are they going to have a “Race To The Bottom Of The Union” contest to see if we can be dead last in everything but stupidity? Jeesh!!

Misty Fyed

September 28th, 2011
8:26 am

Hmm…Maybe this is how the rich feel about being taxed for things they will never get to use.

Paul

September 28th, 2011
8:26 am

Jay

I’ll bet you could ask agency head after agency head after legislative committee chair after … pick your agency and ask “who has the final approval or disapproval for this scheme’ and the only answer you’ll get is “Not me!”

Yet if there’s something that goes wonderfully right, you’ll see those same people taking credit for it in their reelection ads and their writeups to justify their promotions or annual bonus.

Aquagirl

September 28th, 2011
8:27 am

Other examples fellow bloggers?

Underground Atlanta? Didn’t they route the Braves shuttle through there to provide more bodies?

Like the poor, government boondoggles will always be with us, but for sheer increase in blood pressure I think these new Lexus Lanes will stomp all previous boondoggles into the ground. Like Jay says, people will be stuck in traffic next to them every day, KNOWING they paid for that lane the Feudal Lords are using.

Oh, I can’t wait until Nathan Deal or some other recognizable politician zips by us peons. That oughta p*ss off even the most die-hard Teanut.

Peter

September 28th, 2011
8:28 am

All Republican accounting…… like example Iraq War, Cost Plus Contracts, the way Republican’s balance the budget, and the way a Republican handles a problem.

The Republican’s haven’t done anything to speak of in 5 years but make things worse in general, and allow the tax breaks to help the super rich get richer.

Heck if a Republican can lie to the state of Georgia, and still get elected, then we see the education system here sucks as well.

Adam

September 28th, 2011
8:28 am

DDR: Don’t worry, Louisiana and Mississippi still have you beat in any race to the bottom.

stands for decibels

September 28th, 2011
8:29 am

Jay, for future reference? Since the term “Ponzi Scheme” has been dumbed down to mean “A publicly funded program I don’t like,” you probably shoulda worked it into the headline. Maybe next time.

Peter

September 28th, 2011
8:30 am

Hey Misty Fyed ……this statement…..

Hmm…Maybe this is how the rich feel about being taxed for things they will never get to use.

Perhaps you what to explain about the poor rich… or is this just another silly statement ?

Mighty Righty

September 28th, 2011
8:31 am

If Obama would come down here and use some construction equipment for a photo op, call it a shovel ready infrastructure investment in green jobs, the libereals wouldn’t care how much money Sonny wasted.

DebbieDoRight

September 28th, 2011
8:31 am

Jay

September 28th, 2011
8:32 am

carlosgvv

September 28th, 2011
8:33 am

This kind of thinking got accepted as a good idea early in Human history when the haves imposed their will on the have nots. It has been that way ever since. From foods to housing to cars to medical care, those who have will get it and those who have not will just have to get by. Those who need long term expensive medical care just to live are a good example. Money is the bottom line in this life. It tops family, church, community and friendships. Amazingly, Jay, you and many others here still seem not to have learned this. I wonder why that is?

USMC

September 28th, 2011
8:33 am

I hate to admit it, but I agree for the most part with the “High Priest of Socialism”, Jay Bookman, on this topic. :-)

Keep Up the Good Fight!

September 28th, 2011
8:40 am

Maybe this is how the rich feel about being taxed for things they will never get to use.

[Cue the music]…The rich never get to experience the elements of waiting in long lines, driving their own limos watching a movie with the commoners, visit a YMCA locker room…… won’t you pay more taxes so that these poor poor rich people can be helped to leave their private jets, their suites and their limos. ….

DebbieDoRight

September 28th, 2011
8:43 am

Paul – That reminds me of that Family Circus cartoon where an invisible gremlin named “Not Me,” “Nobody” and “Ida Know” deny responsibility for everything! So maybe there’s an invisible gremlin working in politics — sounds like a good explanation to a lot of dodging and weaving when people of the politcal persuasion are asked direct questions.

Question: Who said that Iraq had Nuclear Weapons?

Answer: Not Me.

Ida Know.

Nobody.

Question: Who was responsible for the massive Wall Street breakdown that resulted in a world wide economic free fall?

Answers: Not Me.

Ida Know.

Nobody.

Independent

September 28th, 2011
8:45 am

Jay, Cox Enterprises, your parent corp, spent $2.8M in 2010 lobbying Congress on several matters. Is your company not paying out money for special treatment? Albeit, it is not directly to the government but through surrogates to have in essence access to a private travel lane?
Surely, Cox wasn’t lobbying to have their taxes increases ala Buffett.

SOUTHERN ATL

September 28th, 2011
8:45 am

Jay says…..
In the case of the I-75 and I-575 corridor north of the Perimeter, the state is seeking bids from private companies to build an extra lane from scratch and operate it as a managed toll lane…….

The lanes on I-85 already exist but I would like to know the “process” on determining WHICH companies will be responsible for the managed lanes. Will my local government representative be able to steer some of funds from the private companies to help raise the standards of our schools? Or, will those private companies use their profits to fund our elected officials’ re-election campaigns?

JKL2

September 28th, 2011
8:46 am

Democrats have said spending limits don’t matter. Just raise taxes higher and get the evil rich to pay their fair share. Maybe Warren Buffet could help…

Marie

September 28th, 2011
8:48 am

It sounds to me like they need to charge more for the privilege of riding in those reserved lanes so the state of GA can produce enough revenue to justify the cost. But on the surface I do not have an issue with this because there is no way governments can continue to rely on tax dollars alone in order to operate public highways or other services.

For example, MARTA claims it will need billions of dollars in order to operate over the next few years instead of the 600 million the 1% sales tax increase (if passed) is expected to generate. They will never make up that shortfall with tax increases/subsidies or fare increases alone. So why shouldn’t they be allowed to have buses or trains that have additional perks/benefits for those who would be willing to pay more for that privilege. Why not allow them to have shops or restaurants within the stations? Or have auto shops at some stations in which riders can have services performed while they’re at work?

The US Postal service is in trouble in part because they have not been able to operate like a business so they can compete with Fedex or UPS. Every step they make has to approved by Congress which is primarily made up of lawyers and not businessmen.

Yet I hear libs like Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama who want those who earn $200K or more to pony up more of their hard earned money. But what additional benefits are they receiving over those who pay no “real” income tax or others who leach off the system altogether?

SOUTHERN ATL

September 28th, 2011
8:49 am

Will my local government representative be able to steer some of funds from the private companies to help raise the standards of our schools?

should be

Will my local government representative be able to steer some of THE funds from the private companies to help raise the standards of our schools?

jm

September 28th, 2011
10:36 am

middleground

September 28th, 2011
10:54 am

Do folks who don’t speak our language or pretend to not speak english get a pass on any fine just by saying, I couldn’t read the sign so its unfair.
GENA EVANS and Sonny Perdue are responsible for this hell on earth for georgia folks. She went ahead with the Hot lane and didn’t get DOT Board approval. She did marry the DOT CHairman during the negotiations. Records from meetings will show no approval.
How many innocent people will die due to not knowing how to use this new toll road?
Government killling citizens again, but to the elected officals who profit…. whats a few dead folks and wrecked cars matter. Under Republicans they will cut education but the GA TOLLWAY Authority will grow government once again.

George Washington

September 28th, 2011
11:06 am

Just another governmental scam. Instead of working for the people by making things easier during these times, our government does exactly the opposite. More $$ to take away from us. Way to go!!

brted

September 28th, 2011
11:07 am

I thought the lanes were pointless at first, but really these are lanes that will allow carpools and busess to get through traffic, encouraging people to carpool or take mass transit. They will allow people to buy their way into the lanes only if it won’t significantly affect the speed of the buses and carpools. If you really, really need to get through the traffic, you will have an option, which is better than having no option. So if you look at it that way, it kind of makes sense.

Driver

September 28th, 2011
1:36 pm

Complain all you want…right up until you have an appointment that you have to get to and can justify the expense. This managed lane will provide an escape hatch. Granted, some will use it as a daily commute option because they can, and that’s fine. For the rest of us who will use it on occasion as necessary, having some sense of control over my own schedule is a great thing.

As for transit, these lanes provide a means of building ridership on existing systems. If you can start to get people on buses because they can travel at speed up or down 85, maybe our tax dollars wouldn’t have to continually support operational costs of these transit systems.

jewcowboy

September 28th, 2011
2:11 pm

“How and when did this get accepted as a good idea?”

How and when did 200,000 people all trying to get the same place in 15′+ containers of steel get accepted as a good idea?

Jay: you do realize that this is way to keep at least one lane moving, right? GDOT estimates, due to Gwinnett’s growth, the HOV lane will have the same trip times as the general purpose lanes.

jm

September 28th, 2011
4:04 pm

Dee Spen

September 30th, 2011
7:06 am

I think I am shocked at all the people on here complaining about the government and officials being responsible. I am a Gwinnett County resident and all they did was submit an option. The taxpayers voted to have it in the last election. I of course voted ‘Absolutely Not.’

On the ballot there was no viable plan offered. No Toll cost listed, and no information on where it would run or how it would work. In addition, the passengers required in the HOV lane would be 3 versus 2 like it is designated at present. It was just a little blurb about how it will help traffic flow better. Just a little common sense told me that wasn’t going to work.

So then the law passes and reality sets in. The little nice blurb that voters agreed to will be the death of their sanity for traffic in Atlanta. So now those 3 passengers can ride, but no longer freely. They have to purchase a Peach Pass with a mininum deposit of $20.00. Then I am still trying to figure out how with no operators those 3 people wont get charged. Seems bogus to me. I vanpool and all van/express bus commuters in Gwinnett had get the peach pass and pay the $20.00 as well and was told it would be free.

Then finally, on the ballot it specified Gwinnett County only and clearly we can see the lane and its tolls stretches clear down to Shallowford Road and that is definitely Dekalb County. So was there some side deal that we didn’t know about.

Long story short, the power of this paid HOV lane was in the Gwinnett County voters hands. I definitely voted no. All those that are complaining, I am curious to know what your vote was as well. Or did you even know there was a vote?

FYI people, local and state elections or 100 times more important than national elections. Local and State elections affects our everyday life. PLEASE VOTE!!!!!