The public’s frustration and outrage over the state-imposed HOT lanes on I-85 has been entirely predictable. So too has been the state’s mishandling of the issue.
Georgia’s transportation leadership has long treated voters more as sheep to be manipulated than as customers to be heeded. Roads, for example, have traditionally gone not where they were needed, but where they would do politicians the most good. And that high-handed approach has been particularly noticeable when it comes to toll-road policy.
The history is familiar: Back when the decision was made to build Georgia 400 as a toll road, angry citizens were bought off with the pledge that tolls would end once the bonds were retired. Yet when the time came, that high-profile promise was broken. The State Road and Tollway Authority — a body chaired by the governor, and under the governor’s total control — simply voted it out of existence.
Then there’s the time a few years ago when, with very little fanfare, the state Department of Transportation decided it would toll Georgia 316 between Atlanta and Athens. State officials were forced to back down at the last minute, assuaging public anger by promising to never again try to convert existing highway lanes to toll lanes.
Once the outrage died away, that promise too was quietly abandoned, and soon state officials were looking to tolls as the answer to every challenge. The fabled Outer Perimeter was at one point going to be built as a toll road, justified by economic and traffic estimates that were wildly unrealistic. Truck-only toll lanes were proposed, until the trucking industry made it clear it would fight the idea. Tolls were even proposed as a way to fund a ludicrous system of tunnels beneath downtown Atlanta that would have made Boston’s Big Dig look like child’s play.
How have we come to this sad state of affairs? I’d propose a combination of three main factors:
1. State leadership faced a huge unmet need for transportation investment in Georgia but felt trapped by its own anti-tax rhetoric. Tolls seemed to offer a quiet way out of that predicament.
2. Nationwide, tolls became an intellectual fad among transportation planners fascinated by their potential not only to finance infrastructure and generate revenue, but also to socially engineer commuting behavior. The notion that people might balk at being socially engineered in such a fashion wasn’t given much consideration.
3. A concerted push among vendors — from bond attorneys, salesmen and financiers to toll-technology companies to good old-fashioned paving companies — who saw the toll fad as a new way to make big profits, often at the expense of unsophisticated state transportation departments. Those vendors also contributed financially to “think tanks” and other groups giving the toll industry its veneer of intellectual credibility.
So what we do now? State officials are playing for time, hoping that anger will recede and that motorists will come to accept their fate. But I’m not sure that’s going to work.
On Monday night, state Sen. Renee Unterman hosted a public meeting in Dacula so that citizens could talk to transportation officials about the toll project, but by all accounts it did not go well. State officials have also pleaded to Washington for help, requesting a waiver to at least let two-passenger carpools return to the HOT lanes.
However, it’s hard to blame Washington for creating this mess. When Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood visited Atlanta two years ago, he publicly questioned the wisdom of adding tolls to existing interstate lanes, suggesting that Georgia voters might not be too pleased by such a step. State officials went ahead with the plan anyway.
You also have to wonder how private companies bidding for the right to build new HOT lanes along I-75 and I-575 are reacting to the reception the idea has gotten so far. (A $16 billion, 285-mile network of such lanes is proposed for metro Atlanta).
The fares needed to make those projects pencil out will be considerably higher than those on I-85, and so far, the public’s not buying it.
– Jay Bookman