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I-85 HOT Lanes: Your Pocketbook or Your Watch?

Opinion: DOT "Peach Pass" may really be a "Diamond lane" targeting carpoolers.

In case you missed it, the current to what the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) calls High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.

The conversion is scheduled to complete during the summer of 2011. After that time, single-rider cars and two-person vehicles can ride in the lane if they pay a variable toll based on the time of day and amount of traffic. The GDOT states they are doing this to manage the lanes more efficiently and to guarantee consistent trip times for commuters.

The toll will vary from 10 to 90 cents a mile, based on the traffic congestion. By charging a higher price during traffic peaks, officials hope to guarantee a 45 mph trip. For area residents, traveling the 14 miles from Old Peachtree to I-285, the price range for a one-way trip down the lane would cost between $1.40 and $12.60. After lane conversion, riders are required to use a "Peach Pass" transponder, which records when a car enters and exits the lanes and will calculate the fee. The Peach Pass campaign is scheduled to launch in March.

I use the current HOV lanes 3-4 times a week with couple of co-workers for our work commute to Decatur. One of my co-workers, Chrissy Magnesi, is a Suwanee resident. She likes the current HOV lane because it allows her to put her daughter on the bus at 7:50 and still make it to work in Decatur around 8:40.

But we don't always have three riders because of afternoon commitments. When the lanes convert to a toll lane we'll only use the lane when all three of us can make it on the same day, because none of us is in favor of paying a fee to ride to work. That defeats one of the main benefits of riding together, which is the cost savings in gas. 

I can tell you that traffic flow on I-85 was dramatically improved when the HOV lanes were opened and the I-85/316 interchange work was finished. Everyone using the road has benefited from the increased traffic flow, especially those who go out of their way to carpool. 

So why is the GDOT changing the current setup? When the existing HOV lanes were created, the stance of the GDOT was that it was the "green" alternative. Use the HOV to reduce carbon emissions and you could also reduce your trip time. That makes sense to me. Carpoolers and public bus transportation have enjoyed those benefits ever since.

Apparently though it's working so well, that the GDOT now feels they need to collect a toll from two-person carpools as well as give single riders the opportunity to buy a pass. I guess taking money from single riders is more important than reducing their carbon footprint. The new justification is to guarantee consistent trip times.

Consider these points:

  • Approximately $12.60 to ride to the perimeter highway from Old Peachtree Road is more than the cost of gas to get there. Financially, it more than doubles the cost of a one-way commute during peak hours of the day. That's a luxury that most cost-conscious commuters will avoid.
  • Is this toll really an additional tax on Gwinnett County residents? As a group, we are the primary users of the I-85 corridor. Why are we creating additional taxes on transportation when taxpayer dollars have already been used to build the roads?
  • Will the project increase capacity of the road at peak times? The amount of pavement is not changing. This change will benefit those willing to pay a toll and create more traffic for those that don't. Think about it. If the goal is to guarantee 45 mph rides, then that means the other lanes must absorb those not willing to pay the toll. So the benefit is for a select few, not the greater populace.
  • Will it shorten ? In my mind, yes. Yet from my experience in using the HOV lane 3-4 times a week we already have this. The only point that consistently slows down today is the 316 merge during the morning and around the perimeter in the afternoon.
  • Will it encourage more people to take the bus and reduce traffic on the freeway? The toll really targets the two-person carpools today. Will they avoid the higher priced toll to use public transportation? Maybe, but remember . It's too bad that people willing to adjust their schedules to make a two-person carpool may soon be forced to pay extra for a benefit that was built to serve them.
  • Typically tolls are added to pay for a road. Haven't the taxpayers already funded I-85? What does the funding for I-85 look like after the toll is implemented? 

It's easy to see why so many Gwinnett residents are not happy with this deal. It appears government is mingling with something that already works well in order to find another revenue stream.

Maybe they need to spend a month riding the HOV lanes to see that they already work and benefit commuters. I will admit that public information sessions on this topic were not well attended, but according to Chrissy, my carpool partner, "They were going to pass the proposal no matter who objected to it."

She did attend the meetings and gave negative input on the proposal.  Some have called it the "Lexus lane," while I prefer to call the "diamond lane" because of the diamond symbol painted in the lane. Soon, it'll cost a diamond for your annual commute. You can pay in tolls or with your time.

For more information on this topic please visit the Georgia state DOT Information Center at http://www.dot.state.ga.us/informationcenter/activeprojects/interstates/I85hotlanes/pages/default.aspx

Jimmy Orr February 19, 2011 at 02:14 PM
Bob, a very well written article. I also share in your concerns. HOV was working well for me when I traveled to Hartsfield-Jackson or took a family member to the airport. Why reinvent the wheel? One thing I have been told is that a weekly commute via HOT lanes would be capped at $200.00 dollars. Whether this is correct or not I do not know but what I do know if this is correct, $200.00 dollars per week would be pretty doggone steep. Another thing I have been told is that with all the electronic scanning capability your toll rate will be computed based on the volume of traffic traveling adjacent to you in the same corridor as the HOT lane you are riding in. The heavier the volume the more the HOT toll. It is also my understanding that to obtain a Peach Pass you will have to set up an account which can be debited to pay your toll costs and that much like your checking account, it will be your responsibility to credit the account with sufficient funds to pay for your HOT lane ride. The GDOT is spending big bucks on this project. Wonder how long it will take for the HOT lanes conversion from HOV lanes to pay for themselves.
Kristi Reed (Editor) February 19, 2011 at 02:58 PM
The hypocrisy of this project astounds me. As Bob said, "When the existing HOV lanes were created, the stance of the GDOT was that it was the "green" alternative." Apparently "being green" is not a concern now. If you look at the GDOT project benefits release, there is no mention of environmental benefits -just transit time improvements, particularly for the new bus routes. The total project cost is estimated at $182 million. I don't recall what we spent the first time around to create the HOV lane, but I wonder how far $182 million would have gone towards adding lanes (particularly between OPT and HM). Jimmy, as for your question about the time required for the project to pay for itself, here is what the GDOT website says about revenues: "The funds generated will be used to defray the costs of construction, operations and maintenance of the lanes. Long term revenue allocation is being studied and a decision about future excess revenues will be made later in the project process." I take that to mean they'll worry about future excess revenues when and if there ever is future excess revenues.
Vic Bishop February 20, 2011 at 06:14 PM
It's interesting to see you in Atlanta are dealing with the same issue we are here in the Puget Sound Region of Washington State. Our WSDOT implemented a 4 year pilot project 3 years ago on our SR 167. It has six lanes, 2 general purpose in each direction and a 2+ HOV lane in each direction. The HOV lanes had very low volume, fast speeds and the GP lanes were heavily congested. WSDOT spent $18 m to install signs, markings, sell transponders (Good To Go pass) and set up the back office to collect the tolls from the 10 mile 2+ HOT lanes. In the second year, from July 1, 09 to March 31, 10, WSDOT spent $1,036,587 to collect $371,295 in tolls, a $650,000+ loss. This was so successful in WSDOT's mind that they are now asking our legislature to convert a 2+ HOV on I-405 in Bellevue to a 3+HOT lane, convert an existing (or gas tax funded, but not constructed) general purpose lane to be a second HOT lane and charge an average of $.74 per mile, or an average of $7.95 per trip. The I-405 2+HOV lane is regularly congested at bottleneck locations and the GP lanes are 10-15 mph congested 5+ hours a day. Question? When your 2+HOV lanes opened, was it a new lane or a converted GP lane? I suspect the improved operation was due to the added capacity rather than the operation of the HOV lane. How much more capacity would have been added if the lane had opened as a GP lane? Check out the Minnesota I-394 web site for another example of HOT lanes not working. Vic Bishop Bellevue, WA
Kristi Reed (Editor) February 20, 2011 at 07:44 PM
Hi Vic, The HOV lanes were added, not converted from GP lanes. Good question as to whether improved operation resulted from added capacity as opposed to HOV operation. The numbers you cite are worrisome - $1+ million to collect $371k in tolls? That is absurd. What justification did WSDOT cite for the conversion? Kristi
Nicky Barrow March 18, 2011 at 12:38 PM
I enjoy using the HOV lane and goes out of my way to find carpoolers in the 3 years I am carpooling. But, in no way, am I willing to pay a penny to travel in the HOV lane much less as much as 0.90 cents per mile. This is absurd - This could cost as much as $13 one way to travel to work which translates to over $550 per month. Unless I am crazy.... I guess I will have to suffer in traffic or pay up! What's the best choice of the two evils? Absolutely rediculous!
Gail Young June 15, 2011 at 02:09 PM
Early on in this proposal (almost 2 years ago) I contacted the GDOT rep. to voice my opposition. I made it a point to state it was in effect punishing 2 person carpoolers who have gone out of their way to "go green", etc. The response in a nutshell was "look, we're going to do this project and if it doesn't work we'll go back to the way it was" (paraphrased). Outrageous! And no one at GDOT to date has been able to explain how the system "knows" when you have 3 people in the car...what about those two person cars that pick up a 3rd on the way into the city? Gail
Andy July 28, 2011 at 07:33 PM
I propose an act of CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE. To make a point as to the absurdity of this project, I propose that on conversion day (sometime shortly after Labor Day, I beileve), that this is protested by driving in the HOT lane at 45 mph and leaving your left blinker on. This will be an act of protest and should slow the HOT traffic down, since it currently is usually at the speed limit of better. I think this may send a message and may even "break it" if enough people do it. We are the taxpayers, aren't we? Not only do we have the toll to worry about (if we're a 2-person car pool), but this had a price tag of $100MM. That came ultimately from our paychecks. What a waste of money and such a shame to ruin a good thing (the HOV as we currently know it).
Mitch July 29, 2011 at 07:59 PM
I encourage anyone interested in this subject to go to www.peachpass.com and read up. Like many of you I do have many concerns: 1.) To be able to use the HOT lane (even as an exempt non-paying vehicle like a 3+ carpooler) you must register and obtain the electronic transponder and place it on your vehicle. There used to be a $20 registration fee but now they are stating it will be free for the first 300,000 to register. However, to set up your account you still are required to have a prepaid amount. This in my opinion will deter people right away from registering and using the lane even if they are carpooling. Also, what about an out of town van with 8 people driving through who have not registered? I guess they are out of luck. 2.) For Bob Williams, auther of this article, this is going to be a challange. He says he sometimes has 3+ carpooling but sometimes not. Therefore he will have to convert his toll mode from "toll" to "toll exempt" or vice versa each time he changes between the two. Aparrently he must do this at least 15 minutes before using the lane, just another thing he will have to remember to do before his commute. I can picture it now, Bob with his two carpoolers parked on the I-85 on ramp. One carpooler says, "why aren't we going Bob?" As Bob taps away on his smart phone he says, "I forgot to change the mode to "toll exempt", we will have to wait 15 minutes to use the HOT lane or I will be charged." 3.) Many more but out of allowed space.
Bob Williams July 29, 2011 at 08:17 PM
@Mitch - Thanks for the visual. It's actually evening more challenging than that. Since writing this article we've learned that there is a 6 mile stretch for southbound traffic with no entry point to the lane (between L'ville Suwanee Road and Beaver Ruin entrances). I typically enter at Old Peachtree with my carpool so we are directly effected. Our options are: 1) Sit through the traffic at the 316 merge past Pleasant Hill to get to Beaver Ruin 2) Drive North to L'ville Suwanee 3) Drive east on Sugarloaf to 316. None of those sound appealing to us. Oh - and there's a park-n-ride lot at Discover Mills with car pools, van pools, and buses. I'm not sure what GRTA will instruct it's bus drivers to do. But one option is to go east to 316 entrance at Sugarloaf. That'll impact the 316 traffic from Dacula.
Mitch July 29, 2011 at 08:39 PM
What a mess! I suggest crossing the double white lines. I think I have seen several billion cars do it so far! Of course, me the dummy or better put - the fine law abiding citizen that I am always waits for the dotted exit line to pass that extremely slow vehicle blocking the HOV.
R++ One of the Famous Dacula Crew September 29, 2011 at 08:52 PM
The line crossers will be the real revenue here - 75.00 minimum plus. Yes, the Lexuses can afford those fees too I'm sure.
Frank Jones October 04, 2011 at 10:37 PM
I hope the no one uses the lanes and the program fails. Maybe then, the legislature will get serious about true short-term and long-term traffic planning. The state is about to enter into another crazy "solution" with the proposed I-75/I-575 project. A private project that is supposed to cost $1 billion to be funded $300 million by Georgia and $100-200 million by the feds. And in doing so, traffic flow won't be improved, the state's hands will be tied for 50 to 60 years and our roadways won't be able to handle another 2+ million people.
Bob Williams October 04, 2011 at 11:50 PM
@FrankJones. Here are a few examples of toll roads that went bust. The I-85 lanes may be headed in this direction if only mass transit and 3+ people car pools are in the lane. http://www.smartmoney.com/invest/bonds/toll-road-less-traveled-driven-to-bankruptcy/ http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/mar/23/south-bay-expressway-builders-file-chapter-11/
Robert Cooper November 13, 2011 at 10:37 PM
I've driven approximately 120 miles observing the HOT traffic, at various times of day, including rush hour, driving the full length of it each time. I've observed during those 120 miles approximately 5-10 total vehicles. Total time was 2.4 hours. Factoring for a 24 hour period = 50-100 cars/day. GDOT estimates that customers will pay less than $5 per trip on average. Even at $5 that's only $500 per day. Since the HOT portion of the $182 Mil project is ONLY $60 Mil, then it should take ONLY 120,000 days, or 329 years to break even on the initial cost. Of course that totally ignores the ongoing costs, but it's enough information to see that this is the most idiotic project ever conceived. Or at least one of them. I have yet to find anything related to a cost-benefit analysis to this project. All the GDOT info is just marketing hype. I have a novel idea, and it's FREE! Open up the lane and let everyone drive in it. Ok, it's not quite free because you either have to take down the current signage, or spray paint over them.
Scott November 14, 2011 at 03:59 PM
Should have seen it this morning about 7:40. There were cars slowly moving in it all the way from before 316 to beyond JCB. For the trip cost of $2.50 from top to bottom that's a lot of revenue because I'm sure there aren't many 3+ carpools hitting on a regular basis. What's sad is as they adjusted the toll after the first few days of uproar it fell to 50 cents from 316 to Indian Trail. Now that's 60-65 cents daily (about 8am). That's a 30% rate increase from the low it adjusted to. Yet people are paying to drive it on a daily basis. The volume in the HOT lanes has grown since it opened. Sadly, so has the number of people I see jumping over the solid lines. I just hope they're getting hit with fines rather than getting away with it. The most fun is when company vehicles do it. Time to call the company and complain about bad drivers in company vehicles!

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