Last Friday, Dennis Currens and his wife were driving back from a business trip in Asheville, N.C., hours before the usual rush-hour gridlock was set to plague I-85 in Gwinnett County. As the Douglasville couple approached Pleasantdale Road along the crowded, 14-lane interstate, their speed dropped to a soul-crushing 17 miles an hour.
The far-left lane, which only days before had catered to carpoolers and buses as a high-occupancy vehicle lane, was empty. It was now a high-occupancy/toll lane — commonly known as a "Lexus lane" — and it was off-limits to anyone not willing to pay extra for the privilege.
"They essentially reduced the number of available lanes," Currens says. "There was an incentive to carpool [before] because they could get in the HOV lane. All they've done is created more of a traffic jam. These roads have already been paid for. It's almost like it's a tax."
On October 1, metro Atlanta motorists got their first taste of a $60 million, congestion-reducin', cash-generatin' toll lane along 15.5 miles of I-85 in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties — and promptly spit it out.
After less than a week of commuter vitriol, protest groups on Facebook and embarrassing news footage showing the new lanes empty alongside a sea of cars, Gov. Nathan Deal ordered state transportation officials to reduce the toll rates for solo drivers and beg the feds to lower the minimum occupancy for a free ride from three people to two.
It was not the most stellar of roll-outs for a so-called congestion solution that the state had planned to duplicate on nearly every metro Atlanta interstate.
"This seems to be probably the rockiest start-up of a new HOT lane that I'm aware of," says Bob Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank and HOT lane booster. "And I've been following this for 15 years around the country."
Under the new system, the first of its kind in Georgia, motorists who want to bypass congestion can hop into the toll lane and pay somewhere between 10 cents and just under a dollar per mile, depending on traffic flow, with a maximum of $5.50 for a single one-way trip. (The cap was reduced to $3.05 by Deal.) A special strip affixed to drivers' windshields or bumpers acts as a transponder that registers how far drivers travel and how much should be charged to their accounts. Revenue generated by the tolls would pay for operations and maintenance of the lanes.
Similar projects are in use or being planned in Miami, Denver, Salt Lake City and several California cities. Championed by free-market enthusiasts and tech-obsessed travel wonks, the lanes represent the supply-and-demand principle in action, based on the assumption that people will pay a little extra for a little benefit.
"Americans, in general, expect in just about everything they do to have choices of different levels of quality at different prices," Poole says. "About the only place we don't have that is out on the freeway. Everybody is forced to be on same lousy service... I question the assumption that the only way we can run highways is to have bad service."
But that flies in the face of the democratic ideal that everyone who pays taxes for public services receives is treated equally. Pavement in Buckhead shouldn't be any different than it is in southwest Atlanta. No cities have created a premium, quicker-response 911 system. And firefighters don't ask to see a VIP card before deciding which blazing apartment unit to douse first.
Still, variations of the supply-and-demand concept are gaining traction. The federal government is in the midst of testing a special program that allows air travelers to pay $100 a year for the privilege of breezing through security lines with a mere fingerprint scan. In San Francisco, the cost of public parking in some neighborhoods rises and falls based on demand to ensure there's always an available spot.
You can thank a mixture of factors, including politics, technology and physical constraints (such as running out of room to keep expanding metro Atlanta's too-wide interstates), for the arrival of HOT lanes. But Brian Robinson, a spokesman for the governor's office, says the main factor is funding — or the lack thereof.
"It's one of the few solutions that we have available to us," he says. "If we're going to have new capacity, we're going to have to find new ways of paying for it. HOT lanes are going to be something we're seeing in the future."
In 2009, the Georgia Department of Transportation approved a long-term, $16.2 billion plan that includes building HOT lanes along metro Atlanta's interstates. Bidding is under way for a $1 billion toll-lane project along I-75 and I-575, to be built in partnership with the private sector. Unlike with the I-85 project, which involved converting existing carpool lanes taxpayers had already funded, the DOT plans to add new toll lanes to those highways.
Otis White of Civic Strategies, a Decatur-based consulting group, wonders if the data-centric, supply-and-demand approach isn't such a bad thing — or if liberals really should be grumbling about Adam Smith's invisible hand creeping into the public realm. After all, he notes, it sends a clear message to drivers just how much an auto-oriented lifestyle costs.
"You begin to show people in a daily way what the cost of living so far from work is," White says. "When we see the bill for driving to work alone in a car every day, I think that's going to lower resistance to getting on a train or bus and letting someone else do the driving."
Those transit options, however, must first exist. Should metro Atlanta — where suburban counties have prevented rail from expanding beyond the edges of Fulton and DeKalb counties — remain auto-dependent, White says a proliferation of toll lanes could ultimately hurt our brethren in the hinterlands.
"It's gonna be a tremendous punishment to the suburbs," he says. "It could be the thing that does in those suburbs, which tragically decided in 1971 that they weren't going to participate in MARTA."
As for Currens, the distressed commuter, he says he'd pay to use future toll lanes — as long as they're newly built and not converted from carpool lanes. And he'd "absolutely" ride mass transit, he says, if it were extended west to Douglas County. There are currently, of course, no plans for that to happen.
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