Still Asking for Whom Georgia's Roads are Tolled?
Monday, May 6th, 2019
The toll lanes are coming! The toll lanes are coming!
Despite a lengthy history of tolling in Georgia, many current residents appear intimidated or uninformed about the state’s expanding toll lanes: how they work, what they do and whether to use them. Opposition misinformation also influences perceptions as memories and tales of the days of tolls fade.
Recent recollections begin with the SR 400 toll plaza. The 50-cent fee was ended in 2013 by Governor Nathan Deal, who said he was keeping the state’s promise to end the toll once the construction bond was retired. Some people remember the 35-cent causeway toll onto St. Simons Island, which ended in 2003. (Jekyll Island calls its $6 toll a “parking fee.”)
But tolls are an integral part of Georgia’s history. Long before bridges were built, travelers paid private boaters to ferry them across the Chattahoochee and other rivers. Today, road names hint at the 1800s history: Johnson Ferry, Paces Ferry and Powers Ferry, for example.
Those early ferries tolled on a sliding scale, from a man or horse (5 cents each) to a loaded wagon (a dollar for wagon, horse and driver), writes Randy Golden in “Ferries of Cobb County.” Ferries declined as railroads expanded. The state Department of Transportation took over ferries and stopped charging users; the last DOT ferry in Georgia, crossing the Flint River near Marshallville, shut down in 1988, replaced by a bridge.
Much like that sliding scale, the Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority employs “dynamic” tolling as a congestion relief tool. As congestion increases on the general-purpose lanes, the charge increases, just as higher demand raises air fares around holiday travel periods.
Georgia has embraced toll lanes as a multi-purpose solution. The user pays. The revenues help fund road construction. The lanes improve traffic flow in adjoining general-purpose lanes too. They also make transit more attractive. The vision for a seamless toll network to facilitate regional travel is becoming reality.
The 16 miles of I-85 High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes are a 2011 federal demonstration project that converted existing interstate lanes to toll lanes. Vehicles with at least three passengers, motorcycles and alternate fuel, transit and emergency vehicles are not tolled. Unfortunately, PR is a challenge when converting existing lanes; many taxpayers argue government is “double-dipping” on roads already paid for. In November 2018, a 10-mile extension with new capacity opened north of the existing lanes.
The South Metro Express Lanes on I-75 (12 miles) and the Northwest Corridor express lanes on I-75/575 on the Northside (29.7 miles) are also new capacity, separated from the general-purpose lanes. They are reversible, with traffic headed toward Atlanta on weekday mornings and out of the city in the afternoon. They also use dynamic pricing, with ample signage to give users fair warning.
The DOT’s ambitious expansion plan would begin construction of new-capacity express toll lanes up SR 400 by 2021, on the I-285 “top end” by 2023, on the I-285 east side by 2022 and on the I-285 west side by 2023. Property owners’ resistance is expected.
Georgia’s toll lanes have no toll booths, hence the “express” part. The required Peach Pass transmitter, a sticker on the vehicle, communicates with transponders overhead and the toll is electronically deducted from an account maintained with SRTA. It has reciprocity with Florida and North Carolina. For customers with privacy concerns, “Pay n GO! Peach Pass” is a rechargeable card available at Walgreens and CVS.
Finally, do toll lanes deserve the “Lexus Lanes” moniker? On any given day, there are more service vehicles and “ordinary” vehicles than luxury vehicles on the toll lanes. Not everyone uses the lanes every day, but drivers who need to minimize congestion on a particular day have a choice.
On Saturday, April 26, a message sign over I-285 West warned that construction blocked three lanes on I-75 and travel time from I-75 to I-575 was 36 minutes. On the toll lanes? Travel time was nine minutes.