If the summer vacation wasn’t over before, it is now. With Labor Day having come and gone, all schools are back and many people have returned from their long-term vacations. Post-Labor Day Atlanta traffic has been bananas, with high volume in some areas reaching greater heights than seen in the spring. And Gwinnett and DeKalb commuters last Wednesday morning saw a new height in the High Occupancy Toll lane on I-85/southbound.
WSB Triple Team Traffic’s Mark Arum first reported the record as it jumped to $16.60, then $16.90, then finally the height of $17. The previous record was $15.50 for the long trip from Old Peachtree Road to Shallowford Road. Most drivers, however, do not take trips that length in the lanes.
Arum (who is the original Gridlock Guy, by the way) easily noticed the record, he told me, because the lane regularly hit the $15.50 mark for over a year. He monitors the I-85 toll pricing each day, as that is his normal sector he covers on 95.5 WSB and because he updates the ticker information with toll pricing on Channel 2 Action News. The State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) adjusts the pricing in the lane, based on volume. So when the price crossed the $16 barrier, his brow furrowed: I-85 did not seem worse to any worse to him on Wednesday.
“It stunk. But it was a normal day,” Arum told 95.5 WSB listeners on The Von Haessler Doctrine daily talk show. There were big issues on I-285 earlier in the morning, which definitely affected I-85/southbound. But those kinds of things also happened in the $15.50 era. So what made Wednesday a record-breaking day?
“If volume in that lane increases significantly, the toll system will try to put pricing in to try and keep that lane flowing,” SRTA executive director Chris Tomlinson explained to Channel 2 Action News. “Our goal is to try and keep that lane moving at an average (speed) of about 45 mph.”
But maintaining that reliable speed is hard and there does come a point where no reasonable price will thwart enough people from the lanes to keep them at 45 mph. More than likely, SRTA realized that with a new traffic season underway and an ever-increasing population, they needed to attempt to set a slightly higher water mark to at least try to lighten the volume in the lane.
SRTA (not GDOT) opened the I-85 Express Lanes in 2011 to a great outcry, and the board has changed certain pricing rules multiple times. People remain outraged that the formerly free H.O.V. lanes, which allowed in only carpools, buses, and motorcycles, suddenly cost money. With the now-toll lanes hitting a record price, the same complaints flashed brighter than brake lights again. “Why do we have to pay for a lane that our taxes already built? That’s theft!”
There are several things wrong with that argument. First, the toll lane is technically less exclusive now than it was as an H.O.V. lane. Before, vehicles had to have multiple passengers or meet other requirements to drive in those lanes. Now, cars with three or more passengers and buses can still use the Peach Pass lanes on I-85 for free, as long as they change the toll mode to note that status on their Peach Pass accounts. Both they and any paying driver can use the lanes. That taxed lane is now open to more people.
Another foil on these complaints is the idea that the money charged for the lane only goes to paying for it or that the lane was done being paid for. The money from the H.O.T. lane (and other new toll lanes around the state) is used for multiple transportation initiatives, as gas tax revenues have decreased with more fuel-efficient vehicles. Even though the gas tax has raised, Georgia needs more funding for roads that the growing population is wearing down. That wear and tear also means a road is never really done being totally paid for. Paving needs to be done on freeways every seven or so years; that money has to come from somewhere.
Arum, the late Captain Herb Emory, and I met with SRTA officials when these H.O.T. lanes opened, and they said the purpose of the lanes was to relieve congestion in the general purpose lanes and provide a separate lane with more reliable trip times. Arum told Von Haessler that the lanes have provided some reprieve: “If the population had remained the same, they definitely would have helped.” Arum himself has used his Peach Pass on a Friday afternoon when heading north out of town and finds them totally worth the cost.
Added capacity improves the ride for all commuters, even those who choose to ride for free in the general lanes.
“The only people that should be mad about the H.O.T. lane are the people that used to carpool in the old H.O.V. lane,” Arum said, since I-85 carpools with only two passengers are not exempt from the cost.
Some cities have tolls that literally are dozens of dollars for each trip. I had to pay a handful each time I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco on my June trip there. We still have far lighter tolls than most places. So while $17 is more than even I would pay on a normal day, and the increase in cost may seem arbitrary, it’s not really that bad. And drivers can skip the cost by choosing a different lane. This is the government using a free-market approach to a growing traffic problem.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.