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Our Views: Lukewarm to HOT

New I-85 toll lanes are little used, poorly received and won’t help effort to pass sales tax

POSTED: October 16, 2011 1:00 a.m.

When it comes to transportation solutions in North Georgia, there are more than a few cooks wanting to season the soup.

Most favor expanded highway construction to ease the region's crushing traffic. Others prefer investing in rail, transit and other forms of public transportation.

The transportation sales tax that Georgians will vote on during next year's state primary will go a long way toward addressing those concerns.

But our traveling needs should be approached in a more effective way than the latest brilliant idea in metro Atlanta: the new High Occupancy Toll lane now open on Interstate 85 from Gwinnett County to just inside the perimeter. So far, that notion is shaping up to be the white elephant of road planning.

The toll lane was created to raise revenue by making riders pay extra for a less-congested ride down the busy expressway. The state Road and Tollway Authority took the far left-hand High Occupancy Vehicle lane that had been in place for several years and turned it into the toll lane. The state's long-range plan is to expand this approach to other highways.

Yet because the state took a highway lane already in place, riders are being asked to pay for a stretch of pavement they have already paid for. As a result, what once was a seven-lane highway has ostensibly become six lanes as most drivers avoid the new pay-as-you-go lanes like a cat dodges water.

How would you like your tax dollars to pay for a park, library or other public need, only to be charged admission when you wanted to use it? That's basically what the Tollway Authority has done.

Other states with HOT lanes added them to existing highways, giving riders an enhanced feature. Not so on I-85; the stretch of road is no wider or better than it was. Just pricier.

With the HOV lane gone, even vehicles with two occupants must pay the toll; only cars with three or more riders can go for free, as well as motorcycles or alternative-fuel vehicles. The state has asked for a waiver from the federal Transportation Department to allow vehicles with two riders to use the lanes without paying. One wonders why it did not do so beforehand.

But even those who ride for free must trouble themselves to apply for a Peach Pass windshield sticker that allows them to use the lanes. Tolls are charged electronically, with drivers only able to enter the lanes at a few points along the highway. Those who try otherwise encounter a nasty strip of raised pavement to rattle their bones; think of it as the velvet rope of the highway, separating the riff-raff from the hoi polloi.

How much does it cost? The charge varies per mile depending on the volume of traffic, more for peak rush hour times. Signs along the route show the changeable rate from one location to another.

So to review: The state took an existing stretch of highway, cordoned it off from the people who paid for it and began charging for its use. But you don't know how much it costs until you use it.

So far, it's easy to see how this "enhancement" has been greeted. Those who drive along I-85 will see few if any cars driving in the new lane. Now traffic is concentrated in fewer lanes, making congestion worse instead of better.

Was that the goal? And how is the Tollway Authority going to raise revenue if few drivers, except those exempt, use the lane? So far, it's hard to see how the state can raise enough from the lanes even to pay for the fancy new signs that tell a select few how much they're paying. This at a time when fuel prices continue to fluctuate and the economy has left many commuters struggling to get by.

Perhaps the true aim was to force more people off the road completely. Yet commuters need to get to work, and state leaders should find the most cost-effective and efficient way to help them do so. Anything else, like the HOT lanes, only adds to our traffic headaches.

To address criticism and increase ridership, Gov. Nathan Deal has sought to lower the toll rates to encourage more drivers to use them. That and the waiver for two-rider vehicles may send a few more cars from the clogged six lanes past the moat into the special lane.

But it would have made more sense to do so before the lanes were open, proving the Tollway Authority didn't think this through very well in advance.

This comes as state leaders are finalizing projects for next year's regional transportation sales tax. On July 31, area voters in 12 regions statewide will be able to approve a 1 percent sales tax to pay for specific road and transit projects in their areas. The special purpose local option sales tax will be on the ballot in 12 regions, each with its own unique list of transportation needs. The projects in the Georgia Mountains region, a 13-county area that includes Hall, provides for a wide array of road improvements totaling $12.6 billion.

To get the T-SPLOST passed, state leaders will be spending the next several months trying to persuade voters that it is vital to easing road congestion. In a time when money is short everywhere and residents are wary of new taxes, it could be an uphill battle. And that effort begins by opening little-used toll lanes that could leave a bad taste in commuters' mouths.

The HOT lane was a lousy idea and has been poorly executed by the Tollway Authority. We hope such future projects to ease our transportation problems are better conceived with the public's best interests in mind.

At the very least, the state doesn't need to take items we've already bought and repackage them to sell to us a second time.



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