By Christopher Tomlinson –
In November 2013, when Gov. Nathan Deal collected the final two quarters in the 20-year life of the Georgia 400 toll booths, a significant shift in Georgia’s transportation strategy took shape.
For the everyday Georgia 400 commuter, there would be no more digging around for loose change and aiming their toss for big black buckets attached to the automated coin machines. But moving away from cash-and coin-based tolling was just one change.
Georgia’s first three forays into tolling — two bridges near Georgia’s coast which opened in 1956 and 1981 and the State Route 400 extension which opened in 1993, were traditional toll projects. Bonds were sold to pay for the infrastructure upgrades, and tolls were collected to pay off those bonds and fund the operations of collecting and administering the toll.
When the tolls ended on Georgia 400, Georgia was left with just one operating toll facility, the I-85 Express Lanes, and the Georgia Department of Transportation’s (GDOT) Managed Lane Implementation Plan, which envisions new, additional capacity Express Lanes on virtually every major commuting corridor in Metro Atlanta.
The primary goal of the Georgia Express Lanes is not to pay off construction debt. Instead, these dynamically-priced toll lanes are intended to offer a more reliable trip as an option to the congestion in the non-tolled, general-purpose lanes. Unlike the static 50 cent price on Georgia 400, these toll rates go up or down depending on the time of day, speed of traffic and level of congestion in the corridor. Essentially, the price is based on a fairly straight-forward supply and demand model: drivers choose to use the Express Lanes due to congestion in the regular lanes and as more cars occupy the express lane, the space becomes limited and the price goes up serving as a metering effect to help keep the lanes flowing.
On the I-85 Express Lanes in Gwinnett County, the price is highest during the morning rush hour typically between 6:45 a.m. and 8 a.m., when the number of vehicles traveling in the corridor routinely outstrips the road’s capacity.
Since the I-85 Express Lanes opened in 2011, more and more commuters see the value in paying a few dollars in order to save time. Even as the maximum price has risen due to increased demand, the lanes continue to set new usage records. In June 2015, the lanes had a total of 687,712 trips – the highest monthly total since opening. As the usage in the express lanes continues to climb, so is the transit usage in the corridor.
In addition, the State Road and Tollway Authority and GDOT are moving forward on several express lane projects geared toward reducing congestion: I-75 South Metro Express Lanes, Northwest Corridor Express Lanes and the I-85 Express Lanes Extension. Anyone who has driven to South Georgia or Florida using I-75 has likely experienced the extreme congestion in and around Henry County. This congestion can occur at any time and often when you least expect it. The I-75 South Metro Express Lanes are designed to allow you to bypass that congestion and are on track to open in early 2017.
Concurrently, a 29.7-mile reversible toll facility is being constructed in Cobb and Cherokee counties on I-75 and I-575. It is the largest transportation project in state history (at least until the Georgia 400/I-285 interchange is built), and the first to use Georgia’s public-private partnership funding strategy. This project, known as the Northwest Corridor Express Lanes, will open by Spring 2018.
While the dynamic pricing model for the aforementioned toll projects will be similar to the I-85 Express Lanes, there are a number of important differences:
* The Express Lanes will be newly constructed lanes and physically separated from the existing highway. These new lanes will provide additional capacity to aid in the free flow of traffic which may help traffic flow in the general purpose lanes.
* Since these lanes are not high occupancy toll lanes or HOT lanes, all drivers including carpoolers, motorcycles and alternative fueled vehicles will pay the toll.
* Registered public transit buses and authorized vanpools will be eligible to use the lanes for free.
* These lanes are reversible and will flow in the direction of heaviest traffic: inbound towards Atlanta in the morning and outbound away from the city in the afternoon.
In addition, a 10-mile extension to the I-85 Express Lanes in Gwinnett County, running northward to Hamilton Mill Road will open to traffic in late 2018.
In order to provide motorists with more choices, SRTA has become interoperable with Florida’s and North Carolina’s toll systems. Your Peach Pass provides you with access to all toll roads in those states without having to stop at any toll booths. We are working with other tolling states to expand the places where Peach Pass is accepted. SRTA is proud to play an important role in providing choices to address congestion and solve the funding dilemma for much needed transportation infrastructure projects on some of our busiest commuting corridors.
The author is the Executive Director of the State Road & Tollway Authority and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.