Even after Gov. Nathan Deal went into near panic mode and lowered the prices on metro Atlanta’s first high occupancy toll lanes last week, the hoped-for flood of drivers in the “Lexus lanes” on Interstate 85 in Gwinnett County amounted to little more than a comparative trickle.
That throws a monkey wrench in the state’s plan to confiscate taxpayer-paid interstate lanes all over the metro area and turn them into money-generating operations. Deal said if the I-85 project fails, it might mean trouble looms for this wrong-headed approach to create possibly hundreds of miles of HOT lanes.
The toll lanes are touted as a way to reduce traffic congestion. But something went awry when the HOT lanes opened for business last week. Motorists didn’t race to pay for the privilege of riding on roadways already bought and paid for with their own tax money even if they might get to work or the mall a little sooner. Fewer than 5,000 vehicles a day used the HOT lanes, such a low volume that it threatens to upend this bad idea.
Faster than you could say “no to high occupancy toll lanes,” the governor cut the tolls, slashing the peak charge by about 40 percent to pull more drivers into the toll lanes. Deal also announced he was seeking a waiver on federal regulations requiring a three-person minimum per vehicle to use the HOT lanes without paying a toll. Deal wants the HOT lanes to have the same two-person minimum required in the also badly under-used high occupancy vehicle lanes.
“All of these actions are intended to increase the volume in the express lanes while maintaining its steady pace, relieve congestion in the all-access lanes, and encourage carpooling and use of the Peach Pass,” Deal said in a statement. (A Peach Pass is needed to pay tolls electronically.)
Deal said he’s “committed to finding transportation solutions that help Georgians get to work and back home to their families,” and he will “continue to monitor the situation.” What the governor didn’t say was that this bad idea will be junked. Too much money involved. “Millions of dollars,” his press spokesman said. Make that at least $110 million in federal tax money for the 16 miles of I-85 that’s been converted to HOT lanes.
Money is what this is all about, trying to coax enough drivers to pay to drive in the toll lanes to fill them to capacity and rake in lots of tolls for the state. But it’s patently wrong to charge tolls for lanes already paid for or being paid for by drivers. Worse, this is not going to make a serious dent in traffic congestion.
Here’s what would work better, as proposed here before: Do away with all the restricted lanes and restore them to free-for-all lanes. That would do more to relieve congestion than HOT or HOV lanes — and save millions if not billions of dollars.