This Week’s Courier Herald Column:
This past Sunday morning, I and a few thousand others had the rare opportunity to run a four mile road race down the southern leg of Georgia 400. The race, done only once twenty years ago when that portion of the highway first opened, was to commemorate the tolls being removed this week.
Motorists have been paying a fixed toll of fifty cents to travel from the Buckhead area of Atlanta to I-285 since the extension of the roadway gave the suburbs of North Fulton, Forsyth County, and points beyond a straight shot to downtown in 1993. The tolls used to construct the road were scheduled to end when the bonds used to construct the road were paid off.
Former governor Perdue extended the tolls for another ten years to finance additional projects along the 400 corridor, but Governor Deal chose to reverse that decision. It became painfully clear during the recent campaign to pass an additional one cent sales tax for new transportation funding that a lack of trust in public officials to keep their promises was a major factor in lack of public support in the Atlanta region.
Governor Deal reversed the decision to extend the tolls, and the final motorists will pay their half dollar this Friday during rush hour. The funds paid to date have allowed for a “completed project” according to the State Road and Tollway Authority, which includes the soon to open ramps to I-85 northbound.
Those at SRTA and the Georgia Department of Transportation acknowledge that it is counterintuitive to be ending toll collection at a time when funding for new projects is urgently lacking. But they also very openly acknowledge that re-establishing trust in their operations is imperative to successfully launching future projects.
Part of this will be communicating what the future of tolls in Georgia will be. At a conference last week conducted by the Georgia Transportation Alliance, SRTA Deputy Director Bert Brantley noted that with the ending of the GA-400 toll, the era of tolls being used to fund construction will also come to a close. Going forward, the primary purpose of tolls will not be to fund construction but instead be used to deliver a “reliable trip”.
Motorists have already experienced the first installment of this concept on I-85 Northeast of Atlanta. Though controversial as one lane that had already been “paid for” was converted to either 3-person High Occupancy Vehicle or variable toll access, the lanes are exceeding usage projections. Those wishing to avoid the gridlock in most lanes can pay a trip cost that increases as traffic does.
The concept is simple, even if the acceptance from those left to sit in the “free” lanes is mixed. Those willing and able to pay extra on days when they are in a hurry will benefit from a moving lane, and pay an increased share of the expenses to maintain the road.
The idea is for motorists to begin to view themselves as consumers with choices. There will now be the option of paying extra based on the value of their time.
I-85 will not be the only corridor to receive managed lanes. A contract to add reversible managed lanes on I-75 from Henry County into town will help alleviate traffic through one of the worst bottlenecks in the state. Those who frequently have to travel to or through Atlanta from Southeast Georgia should notice the benefit even if they do not pay the tolls, as these will be additional lanes that take motorists off of the already overcrowded lanes. A similar project along I-75 and I-575 from Cherokee and Cobb Counties to Atlanta is expected to begin soon as well.
These expansions also quietly lay the groundwork for increased transit options in the Metro Atlanta area, connecting the ever far flinging suburbs back to the inner core. By moving towards establishing corridors and lanes with the goal of a guaranteed trip time, it is much easier to plan and execute express bus services. Perhaps more importantly, it is easier to convince commuters to board a bus knowing that they will improve their trip time versus sitting in the traffic of the parallel non-managed lanes.
The future of transportation in Georgia will not be tied to old established paradigms. As one toll ends, others are planned, but with very different outcomes in mind. With the increasing costs of construction and the degree of difficulty in adding capacity to the most congested roads, tolls will no longer primarily be about financing projects. Instead, the tolls we will choose to pay – or not – will be about managing existing traffic.