Georgia’s grand transportation plan involves adding High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes throughout the region over the next several decades. HOT lanes are dedicated pay-to-use lanes for which fluctuating fees are charged based on peak and off-peak hours of demand. This ‘variable pricing’ system charges drivers more during peak hours in an effort to mitigate traffic congestion and provide more reliable travel times.
But is this heavy investment in HOT lanes really the best use of our funds? Take a look at Paris and London. Atlanta was recently named as the city with the 8th worst traffic in the world; between Paris (9th) and London (7th). Paris and London, though, are top-tier global economic cities with two to three times the population of Atlanta. While Georgia and metro Atlanta have preferred to invest almost exclusively in road projects and low-density sprawl, Paris and London are dense cities that have invested heavily in transportation diversity.
One thing is very clear in this debate: the Georgia Legislature needs to get serious with transit funding if we want continued and successful growth.
Are HOT Lanes Working?
It depends on what you mean by “working.” If the idea is to reduce traffic congestion for people willing to pay the price to use the HOT lanes then yes, the data appears to show that they are working. However, if the idea is to reduce traffic congestion for everyone, then the data is much less supportive.
The Georgia Department of Transportation recently reported that traffic in the I-75 HOT lanes south of Atlanta moves 10-20 miles per hour faster than the general purpose lanes during the morning and afternoon commute. However, morning northbound traffic in the general purpose lanes moves less than 1 mile per hour faster than it did before the HOT lanes were installed.
The disproportionate advantage gained by those who can afford to use HOT lanes suggests that these “lexus lanes” have lived up to their moniker. While Georgians are contributing billions of tax dollars to fund the building of these lanes, the benefits are significantly skewed towards those who can afford to use them. One study found that while most residents benefit from HOT lanes, the wealthiest quartile receives 17 times more travel-related benefits than the poorest quartile. In California, those making over $100,000 a year are twice as likely to use them than those making less than $40,000 per year.
It’s no surprise that wealthier people make up a higher percentage of HOT lane users; spending $5-$15 during rush hour for faster travel is much less consequential for someone making $100,000 a year than for someone making $30,000 a year. A study done by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) found a statistically significant correlation between median income and I-85 HOT lane use, which mirrors the results of other studies.
Subsidized Travel for the Wealthy
As the SELC points out, the equity problem with HOT lanes is partially based in their state funding. The revenue generated from tolls does not raise nearly the amount required to build and maintain them, so additional tax dollars are needed. Therefore many who can’t afford to use the HOT lanes are subsidizing easy travel for wealthier residents who can afford to use them.
This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if Georgia also heavily funded transit. Many state lawmakers have long balked at the idea of funding MARTA, preferring that the system instead rely on revenue generated from user fees. However, many of those same lawmakers tend to take the opposite stance on user-fee funding when it comes to HOT lanes, and roads in general.
Fortunately, our state leaders seem to have reversed course on transit. Many are pushing for funding on the state level and the expansion of funding on the local level. Transit appears to be quickly gaining bi-partisan support and bridging the urban-rural divide that has long divided Georgia and impeded our state’s economic progress.
Yet transit funding is still hotly contested. While road funding is seemingly rubber stamped by officials and the media, transit funding triggers endless debate. Transit projects, such as the Atlanta streetcar, are subjected to criticism at every corner. While the HOT lanes have received some critical analysis from the AJC, most road projects receive little substantive commentary from major media outlets and politicians.
Transportation Must Connect All People, Not Just Wealthy People
HOT lanes aren’t necessarily bad. They just need to be coupled with relatively equitable transit funding throughout the region so that everyone has adequate and affordable transportation options. The data shows that HOT lanes have put a dent in traffic congestion, but that dent is unevenly distributed in favor of wealthier drivers. They have the potential to increase transit ridership since commuter buses can use the lanes for free. Too many buses in the lanes, though, may create congestion and consequently defeat the purpose of the lanes.
When it comes to transportation planning, we should be investing in a framework for a successful and sustainable economy, and that necessarily requires a complimentary array of transit options. Not every transit project will necessarily reduce traffic for everyone, produce massive ridership numbers, or even make a return on investment. Neither will every road project.
Collectively, the transportation framework needs to accommodate everyone since the economy relies on everyone. A diverse transportation infrastructure coupled with strategic increases in density around transportation nodes would allow Atlanta to grow into a top-tier economic city while maintaining existing traffic levels. Let’s hope the Georgia Legislature has finally turned a corner and is seriously interested in creating a more responsible and successful transportation system for Atlanta.