In Atlanta, some say new toll lanes benefit wealthier drivers

Rush hour traffic in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. (2 Apr 1996)

In cities across the U.S., High Occupancy Vehicle -- or HOV -- lanes are giving way to HOT lanes: High Occupancy Toll. Traffic jammed? Just scoot into the HOT lane and zoom right past, as long as you’re willing to pay.  

“I personally don’t want to pay,” says Janelle Mobley, as she waits for her car to be washed just off I-85 north of Atlanta. A HOT-lane system went into place on the highway about a year ago. 

“I mean they take enough out of my taxes to pay for these Interstates,” she says, adding that she’d rather sit in traffic than buy her way out.

More and more Atlantans are using the HOT lanes. But not a lot was known about those drivers until a recent study by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It analyzed zip codes of paying drivers and found a correlation.

“What the data shows is there is some relationship between income and use,” says senior attorney Brian Gist.

The SELC found the richer the zip code, the more likely a driver is zooming along in the HOT lane. Trips can cost anywhere from a few cents up to $8 -- at least that’s the highest toll so far.  

The state waives tolls for some vehicles, like three-person carpools. Even so, exempt drivers still have to obtain a windshield transponder, like toll payers, and register each trip in advance.

Gist says only a small fraction of drivers opt for the HOT lane.

“What we need to do is look for a solution for 100 percent of the people, rather than 5 to 10 percent of the people,” he says.

Bert Brantley, deputy executive director of the Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority, says the SELC study failed to take into account one in seven HOT-lane trips is actually a free ride.

“So really the analysis is very limited,” he says. “It is certainly of value to look at these kind of things, because we’re spending tax dollars to build the project.” 

It cost $56 million to convert the current section of I-85 that’s now has a toll lane.

Brantley says the state will look at income disparity when more data become available later this year. In the meantime, he says, the lanes ease congestion.

But they don’t solve the bigger issue, says Rod Diridon of the Mineta Transportation Institute.

“HOT lanes are a band-aid,” he says, adding that the only long-term fix is to invest in public transportation.

For now, new “Lexus Lanes” are coming to San Francisco, Denver, Charlotte and even Atlanta, where the state government plans to have a HOT lane in just about every interstate that traverses the capital.

About the author

Jim Burress is a reporter for WABE in Atlanta.

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