A New Top Price to Ride the I-85 HOT Lanes

The AJC’s Gridlock Guy brings us the news that during rush hour one morning last week, drivers paid $10.00 to drive in the HOT lane between Old Peachtree and Shallowford Roads on I-85. That’s the highest price charged to drive the stretch since the lanes opened up back in October, 2011.

When the prices made sharp increases in their debut week, Gov. Nathan Deal worked with the State Road and Toll Authority to limit that rise. Over the next couple of years prices steadily increased, finally reaching double digits in the past few days. SRTA raises the prices in the HOT lanes based on demand, with the idea of trying to maintain a speed that is faster than the other lanes on I-85.

SRTA has found the need to increase prices in the HOT lanes to at least $10 at the worst times of morning drive on I-85/southbound, meaning that demand for those lanes is likely more than ever. That is yet another indicator that traffic these days is as bad or worse than it ever has been in Atlanta. So keeping those HOT lanes moving at a reasonable speed is harder and harder.

The justification for changing from the previous HOV lanes on I-85, which let cars with two or more passengers ride in the dedicated lane, to the HOT lanes, which are free for drivers with three or more passengers, was that traffic volume in the HOV lanes meant riders using them made no better time than riders in the general lanes. By switching to a three passenger minimum or a toll that rose as demand increased, SRTA hoped to keep traffic moving at at least 50 MPH at all times.

Notably, the goal was not to raise money that could be used to pay for road construction and maintenance. In fiscal 2013, the cost of operating the lanes exceeded toll revenue by $1.7 million, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Instead, it was to provide reliable trip times for Gwinnett Transit and GRTA buses traveling to downtown Atlanta and back, carpoolers, and anyone willing to pay the toll.

As Charlie explains in another post, it is imperative to find new sources of funds to pay for needed maintenance and construction of Georgia’s highway system. The $10 toll on the I-85 HOT lanes is not the first step in that process. Instead, it is an indicator of how current capacity along the interstate isn’t enough to meet demand during peak commuting hours.

12 comments

  1. Baker says:

    I propose a $10 thanks-for-stealing-the-Braves toll coming into Atlanta from Cobb County.

    Seriously though (not that the above point wasn’t serious), I think there should be tolls all over. And they shouldn’t just end “when the project is paid for” because maintenance is not free and means the project has ongoing costs.

    • Charlie says:

      The new paradigm on tolls is exactly that. Tolls are no longer about construction. They are about helping manage a guaranteed trip time to those willing to pay for it.

      Note that at the level of tolls on the existing managed lanes they barely cover operating costs, even with the average toll of $2.12 each way (estimating then $4.24 round trip). Keep this in mind for those that are proposing tolls as the “cost effective” way to pay for new construction. Add more tolls to existing roads/miles that we’ve “already paid for”, and/or have really large tolls on new lanes to recoup cost of construction.

      When you start looking at the fact that the average Georgian currently pays $9 per month to GDOT, adding multiple tolls around town that could easily be that much per day to move about doesn’t sound like the ideal “user fee” compared to the relatively simple gas tax, does it?

      • Dave Bearse says:

        Except that they aren’t paying anywhere near the cost of it—the general road user pays most of the cost and gets very little benefit. It analogous to an airline charging folks in economy more that the cost plus profit of their seat, and using that surplus to reduce first class seats below cost.

        • Charlie says:

          You are correct. I’m speaking directly to the folks that say “use tolls” instead of increasing gas taxes. If you look at GDOT’s first $15 billion in priorities for new construction, not one of them is a new road (unless there’s a few in GRIP that I’m unaware of). It’s reconfiguration of existing interchanges, a rebuild of I-285 North to add managed lanes and whatnot, and additional lanes on I-85 outside of metro.

          So where are these tolls supposed to be added? On existing highways like Cobb Parkway or Peachtree Industrial? (note that there’s federal restrictions to toll existing interstate highway lanes under almost all circumstances. The HOT lane experiment a notable exception, but then only for one existing lane).

          My point is this. Most of the people saying “use tolls” either don’t understand how they operate or what circumstances they can be implemented. More importantly, most think of them as something they can avoid. So anyone that says “tolls” as the answer need to be asked some hard questions about when, where, and how much. Because while they are a large part of the solution going forward (see all the managed lanes projects on every major project near Atlanta), they aren’t going to get the results that the something for nothing crowd wants us to believe they will.

          • Baker says:

            Cobb Parkway, Peachtree Industrial, Georgia 400 (oh wait, that was stripped out in a gimmick), Veterans Memorial, Buford Highway, Lawrencville Highway. Everywhere.

            I’m not against raising the gas tax. I think it should be raised but I think tolls should be a part of it.

            I would like to note that for all those out there that are so apoplectic that we haven’t raised the gas tax…guess who gets nailed by a hike in the gas tax…the poor. I think it’s unavoidable to raise it at this point but just wanted to note it.

            • Charlie says:

              OK, so now let me ask “how” we do this.

              Everyone doesn’t have a Peach Pass. (Think out of towners, long haul truckers, etc).

              You now need toll booths in addition to adding the cameras/sensors that enable Peach Pass to work.

              How much does this cost?

              It’s not a trivial amount nor a trivial question. This is the kind of answer that tends to come from ivory towers and/or those that want to sound like there’s a proposal on the table showing they understand the need when they’re really offering an unhelpful and unworkable solution as a competitor to those that can actually be implemented but will cost money.

              Quite simply, to enact tolls on roads like this “that we’ve already paid for” would cause a bigger political uproar than increasing a gas tax. But even without that problem, the cost of implementing tolls (again, see Gwinnett at $4.24 per DAY) versus what an average GA driver currently pays GDOT ($9/month) makes the gas tax both easier to implement and much cheaper for the average driver.

              • Baker says:

                Just say “Boy we wish you guys had voted for TSPLOST but now we have to put tolls everywhere”

                That should calm down any potential “political uproar”…

                How we do it?
                More HOT lanes for those without Peach Passes? Do it 400 style with a Peach Pass lane & cashier lanes.

                Now…this isn’t very conservative of me (trying to engineer behavior), but is there not also an advantage of tolls in that it should encourage people to carpool? Or would that not actually happen? That’s just my hippy dippy pipe dream?

                Again, I think raising the gas tax is absolutely necessary but would some smart toll placement not also be a piece of it?

                I don’t know how much all that costs. I am not a traffic engineer. But I’m pretty sure the tolls would pay for the toll construction pretty quickly, no?

                • Charlie says:

                  Tolls are absolutely a part of GDOT/SRTA’s present and future.

                  I-85 already has them, with an extension northward coming.

                  I-75 will have them soon north and south of Atlanta.

                  I-285 has them in the currently unfunded plan. That plan still requires $4 Billion to implement. And that’s just the top end, and presumes using tolls as part of the cost analysis already.

                  My point is this: There are those that are saying “we don’t need a tax increase, tolls can get us where we need to go without raising taxes.” I want these people to say specifically where these tolls will be, and how much they will be, given that the state’s immediate priority list for new projects is $15 Billion and already includes what I mentioned above (with partial financing by tolls) in them.

  2. Will Durant says:

    The choice by SRTA to use their own people’s patented system of sensors and cameras without barriers for the HOT lane conversion of former I-85 HOV lanes is a dismal failure. So until proper lanes can be built with barriers along with dedicated entrances and exits the current I-85 HOT lanes should just be converted to Buses Only lanes. This would save the taxpayers $7.5 million per year and probably even more considering the drop in police enforcement requirements.

    The speed sensors automatically trigger the programming to increase the price ostensibly for the sake of the buses. Ratcheting up the toll doesn’t really help increase the speed in the lane when there is no barrier. Only a couple of feet separate a vehicle that theoretically could be driving 65 MPH vs a socked in string in the leftmost regular lane traveling at 0-5 MPH. Especially in the areas of the, ahem, entrances and exits, i.e. double dashed lines where the slower traffic can legally pull over in front of you. This means like traffic anywhere else in the world the “Express Lane” slows to match the other lanes, it’s just human nature.

    Yeah, this adds some of the Lexi back into the lanes of the great unwashed. But you have eliminated the extreme lane changing antics in the great migrations to and from “their” lane. This has caused many more accidents and braking that did not exist prior to the conversion to HOT Lanes. It also eliminates all but the most stupid from producing blue light slowdowns for attempting to use the lane illegally. So the average workaday commuter would likely see an improvement in their normal commute times and the bus riders certainly would.

  3. WeymanCWannamakerJr says:

    The volume in the Express Lane is up and this is easily obtained from the toll system. Is this a function of the overall volume of traffic increasing appreciably in 3 years or has the solution made the original problem worse?

  4. Jon Lester says:

    If we could somehow engineer moving more people of Justin Bieber’s ilk into Buckhead and expanding events at Chateau Elan at the same time, we might get some of the transportation money we need, between limousines in the HOV lane and DUI revenues from those who drive themselves.

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