Amid complaints from commuters about tolls on the new I-85 HOT lanes, Gov. Nathan Deal lowered toll rates by about 40 percent after just a few days of operation. It is not unusual for drivers to be upset about rates in a HOT lane’s infancy, nor is it unusual for them to experience startup problems.
The governor should have stressed there were several reasons the I-85 carpool lane has been converted to a high-occupancy toll lane. The congested carpool lane was failing to meet federal performance standards that require an average speed of at least 45 miles per hour 90 percent of the time. Across the country, the standard remedy for clogged carpool lanes is to increase the required occupancy level from two people per car to three. That usually leaves a lot of spare capacity, which can then be sold to single-person vehicles looking for faster commutes.
Dallas, Denver, Houston and Los Angeles are among other metro areas converting carpool lanes to HOT lanes. And high-occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes in various cities have upped their requirements to three-or-more person carpools to comply with federal performance requirements. Carpools with three or more people still can use the I-85 HOT lanes for free — as can emergency vehicles, buses, motorcycles and alternative-fuel vehicles. During transitions like this, complaints tend to stem from two-person carpools previously allowed in the lane.
It’s an understandable objection. It takes time to find a third person to join a carpool. And drivers have just begun to experiment with when to use the toll lane and pay for the value of time savings it can deliver. The HOT lane was 33 minutes faster than the regular lanes during the worst congestion recently, the State Road and Tollway Authority told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Meanwhile, other drivers were complaining that traffic was worse than ever in the non-toll lanes. However, in other cities with HOV-to-HOT lane conversions, traffic speed has increased. In Seattle, total traffic volume remained constant, but speeds in the free lanes increased 3 percent to 19 percent.
Over time, HOT lanes in other cities became popular with drivers as they adapted and learned to use the lanes to get value out of their commute. In Denver, usage has grown 35 percent since the HOT lanes opened. After the I-15 express lanes in San Diego were switched from HOV to HOT lanes, traffic in them increased by 143 percent. And once commuters in other cities became familiar with the HOT lanes, their satisfaction increased substantially as well. In Minneapolis, 76 percent of the public is satisfied with the HOT lanes, and 85 percent are satisfied with the traffic speed.
Atlanta’s commuters will gradually recognize the value of always having a congestion-free alternative on I-85. Paying $5 to pick up your child from day care on time is better than paying a $20 late fee.
The State Road and Tollway Authority is issuing 1,700 new Peach Passes a day, indicating there are a lot of drivers who would like to use the HOT lane, but do not yet have the needed sticker.
Rushing to judgment on HOT lanes is a bad idea. The I-85 lanes are part of an approach that can help bring the region faster and more reliable bus service and guarantee drivers a network of free-flowing lanes to get them where they need to go, when they need to be there. Let’s give the HOT lanes more time to demonstrate their value.
Baruch Feigenbaum is a transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation. This column first appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.