Who said Georgia’s policy-makers aren’t into railroads? Not those who watched last week as two transportation agencies railroaded passage of a 10-year extension of the 50 cents toll on Georgia 400. The surprise move seriously diminished the lure of toll roads for metro Atlanta. Commuters, taxpayers and policy-makers must hope, however, that the bad taste will recede: The concept has to survive.
Tolls are not just a source of funding as the impact of the gas tax shrinks. They are also a tool for congestion mitigation. When a higher cost is assigned to some roads than others, it encourages motorists to consider the value of their trip and time. Those whose trip is less pressing or whose time is worth less take the cheaper, “free” alternatives; those whose time and trip are worth more are willing to pay for a quicker, more direct or less congested trip. The result is dispersed traffic and less congestion for everyone.
Removing the toll from Georgia 400 would undoubtedly aggravate congestion on the road; the funding also is necessary for improvements to the corridor. An exit onto Interstate 85 north, for example, is long overdue. Neighbors complain about the noise and emissions near the toll booths, where motorists without Cruise Cards must stop and idle to pay, after which they accelerate noisily.
Toll booths are passé. The toll road of the future — indeed, of today — does not require motorists to stop and pay; tags and cruise cards are scanned or photographed as they pass through. The unfortunate move by Georgia’s State Transportation Board and State Road and Tollway
Authority came just one day after the manager of an innovative and wildly successful toll expressway in Tampa, Fla., said the concept of his road has been one option under consideration in metro Atlanta.
Martin Stone, director of planning for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority, was giving a guided tour of the 4-year-old Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Toll Expressway to participants in the American Dream Coalition’s Defending the American Dream Conference held in Orlando, Fla. A marvel of engineering, the 10-mile, three-lane road, 60 percent of which is elevated, was constructed in prefabricated sections then assembled using just six feet of right-of-way in the median of an existing toll road. It’s reversible: All three lanes are inbound to downtown Tampa in the morning peak and outbound to Brandon in the evening peak.
Traffic and the daily reversal of the lanes are monitored remotely from a state-of-the-art center next to the tollway. In September, the authority implemented open-road tolling: Drivers no longer stop at a booth. They choose to pay with the SunPass, Florida’s “Cruise Card” or open-road tolling, with the license plate captured by cameras on an overhead gantry. The 10 cameras and 18 readers scan tags with 99 percent accuracy. If they choose open road tolling (with a bill sent to them), it costs 25 cents extra per transaction. The cameras and readers are also used to prosecute violators.
The road, which became fully operational in January 2007, was expected to draw 12,000 vehicles per day. After one year, actually ridership averaged 17,000 vehicles per day. Transit benefits were immediate and visible: After one month, the express bus route from Brandon saw a 40 percent increase in ridership, Stone told the tour group. Public transit passage is free; no trucks are allowed on the road. The speed limit is 65 miles per hour, yet since its opening — 12 million trips ago — there has been just one confirmed multi-car accident (at the entry) and two single-car accidents. Emissions reductions, operations savings and fuel savings also were significant, according to Stone.
Stone said Georgia traffic planners were intrigued by the concept for the I-75/I-575 corridor expansion in metro Atlanta. The I-85 demonstration project of a 14-mile High-Occupancy Toll lane, which would also allow solo drivers for a fee, has just gotten under way. The HOT lane project is only the first leg of a crucial express toll lane network that offers metro Atlantans a seamless transition among interstates and significant congestion relief.
The State Transportation Board and the State Road and Tollway Authority, whose major misstep was arrogance as they reneged on their promise to end the toll in 2011, have no choice but to mount a major public relations campaign. They must apologize and explain that while they took the wrong approach, the outcome is necessary. That, or lose public faith in a necessary piece of Georgia’s transportation puzzle.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.