Georgia's New Toll Lanes Help 'Reverse' Traffic Congestion

Benita M. Dodd

Monday, February 6th, 2017

In a milestone event that occurred quietly on Saturday, January 28, Georgia entered the ranks of the few, the proud, the innovative states as a 12-mile stretch of reversible toll lanes opened on I-75 south of Atlanta. Just four other states boast reversible toll lanes.

A little history: Georgia has known tolls since the 19th century (at least). Few metro commuters realize the toll origins of the roads they travel: Johnson Ferry and Paces Ferry (crossing the Chattahoochee) and Bell’s Ferry (crossing the Little River in Cherokee County), to name a few, once were ferry crossings that charged a toll before bridges came along.

The St. Simons Island causeway, built in 1924 to replace ferries, was tolled from the beginning. A new causeway was built in 1986; the toll was finally lifted in 2003. Georgia 400 in metro Atlanta opened in 1993 amid massive protests that quashed its planned link to I-675 in southeast DeKalb County. Tolling ended in November 2013. In both cases, the tolls were imposed for the specific goal of funding construction and maintenance.

The I-85 Express Toll Lanes that opened in 2011 are a federal demonstration project that converted 16 miles of overused high-occupancy vehicle lanes into toll lanes. Essentially, Georgia’s HOV lanes are for vehicles with at least two occupants, alternatively fueled vehicles and motorcycles. The I-85 toll lanes are accessible to solo motorists who choose to pay the toll; vehicles with at least three occupants and AFV vehicles travel free.

Although outrage continues because existing lane capacity was tolled, the I-85 lanes are enormously popular. A dynamic toll, which changes according to congestion levels, ensures a reliable trip time.

The brand-new reversible toll lanes are the most exciting opportunity in a long time for metro Atlanta; the Northside lanes are under construction on I-75/575 and will open in 2018.

Here’s what makes them so promising:

The lanes are additional capacity, avoiding the bad PR of “taxed-twice” protests that accompanied I-85 tolls.

Unlike I-85’s toll lanes, the new lanes will flow toward Atlanta for the morning commute and safely reverse direction around noon for afternoon commuters. That targets the weekday problem and saves on unnecessary capacity, construction and cost.

Unlike the St. Simons Causeway and Georgia 400 tolls, the I-85 and reversible lanes' tolls are linked to mobility, not to construction costs. The dynamic pricing serves as “congestion insurance.” Users also consider whether their trip time and route are worth the cost.

Like I-85, the tolls are collected electronically so that motorists need not stop or slow down. Readers on overhead gantries identify the Peach Pass transponder on each vehicle, cameras provide backup for violations, and the Peach Pass is interoperable with Florida’s SunPass and North Carolina’s NC Quick Pass.

Unlike the I-85 tolls, these lanes are completely separated by concrete barriers from regular traffic, situated in the median of I-75. This enhances safety. (There is an emergency lane, too.)

Unlike the I-85 lanes, there is no HOV component. Every motorist choosing to use the lanes must pay, with the exception of vanpools, public transit buses and emergency vehicles.

As has happened each time tolls come to metro Atlanta, protests are loud and skepticism high. Preliminary numbers are not yet out, but observers cite low use of the lanes in the first week, even though Peach Pass users can travel free the first two weeks. With the I-85 tolls located on the north side of Atlanta, it’s likely most Southside motorists south of Atlanta have not needed a Peach Pass until now.

Most promising of all that this project is just the second step to a seamless regional toll lane network improving mobility not only for motorists but for buses and vanpools. It will promote transit use by making buses faster and farther-reaching, expanding job horizons and opportunities. It will serve as a sorely needed virtual transit network more flexible, more technology-friendly, more cost-effective and reaching more commuters than rail ever could in metro Atlanta.