The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an Atlanta-based free-market think tank, wields a lot of influence with the state’s conservative leadership. The foundation has also been a leading advocate of public and private toll-road projects, including the controversial I-85 HOT-lane conversion.
In an article headlined “State must ensure Georgians warm up to HOT lanes,” GPPF vice president Benita Dodd pleads for patience from commuters and politicians alike, saying it’s much too early to proclaim the I-85 project a failure. In other cities, she points out, it took some time before motorists got used to the idea and began to use HOT lanes regularly.
Her point is valid. When Ga. 400 first opened, Atlanta media outlets, including this newspaper, ran a lot of stories pointing out that very few people were using the highway. That situation changed pretty quickly as commuters changed their travel patterns.
To bolster public patience, Dodd cites the example of State Route 91 in southern California. After HOT lanes opened on that highly congested route, Dodd writes, toll-paying commuters not only saved 30 minutes on a 10-mile trip, “Rush-hour speeds in the regular lanes increased by 17 mph and peak-period congestion in the morning was reduced by over an hour.”
That does sound highly encouraging — a 17-mph increase in the general lanes! Unfortunately, it has not exactly been the experience of commuters in the I-85 corridor, where motorists in the regular lanes complain that commutes have gotten considerably longer. Why has our experience been so different?
Well, here in Georgia, the two new HOT lanes — one in each direction — were carved out of existing interstate, pushing traffic into the remaining lanes. In California, traffic flow improved because four additional travel lanes — two in each direction — were built in the median of SR 91 as HOT lanes. In other words, significant new capacity — not HOT-lane technology — accounted for the improvement cited by Dodd. (By the way, that improvement proved temporary, largely disappearing as additional traffic was drawn by that additional capacity.)
GPPF has also tried to dispel the notion of HOT lanes as “Lexus lanes,” which it defines as “an elitist way to enable wealthier, paying motorists to bypass the congestion that the unwashed masses must endure.” Again citing California’s experience, GPPF claims that HOT-lane users on SR 91 were no different demographically than those using regular lanes.
The Reason Foundation, the libertarian think tank that has championed HOT lanes on the national level, makes similar claims, arguing that “studies of the 91 Express Lanes indicate that use increases slightly with income group.” However, the studies cited by Reason and GPPF directly contradict what they claim.
According to those studies, commuters with incomes above $100,000 were more than twice as likely to use the toll lanes frequently than those making less than $60,000. That is not a “slight increase” among income groups. The studies also found that as fares rose higher and higher, usage by middle-income commuters dropped significantly.
“The significant decline in reported toll lane use by commuters in the $40-60K category suggests that these middle-income commuters have been unusually sensitive to the toll increases, and are less willing to pay tolls despite the worsening traffic congestion in the corridor,” the study concluded.
That trend could be important to travelers in the I-85 corridor as that project matures, usage increases and tolls are raised to fend off congestion. (Today, the highest toll collected on SR 91 is $9.85 for the 10-mile trip, more than double the highest fare of 10 years ago.)
Interestingly, that study, led by Edward Sullivan of Cal Poly State University, also found that SR 91 commuters consistently overestimate how much time they save by using the toll lanes, overshooting the mark by anywhere from five to 30 minutes a trip.
“It suggests that making available accurate data on actual toll lane time savings might result in reduced toll lane use,” the writers warn. In other words, it’s not the deal it may appear to be, although you may already know that.