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