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Tolling nightmare continues in Virginia despite Georgia failure Print E-mail
Written by Terri Hall   
Wednesday, 02 November 2011
Following the Washington Times editorial is an article on the FAILED Georgia HOT lane experiment that "conservative" think tanks are trying to spin as a success-in-waiting.

Link to article here.

EDITORIAL: Georgia’s tolling nightmare

Old Dominion set to repeat the Peach State’s mistake

By THE WASHINGTON TIMES - The Washington Times
The Dulles Toll Road proved its notoriety for traffic congestion. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority seeks to levy taxes for road improvements that would ease such commuting hassles. (Barbara L. Salisbury/The Washington Times)The Dulles Toll Road proved its notoriety for traffic congestion. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority seeks to levy taxes for road improvements that would ease such commuting hassles. (Barbara L. Salisbury/The Washington Times)

Virginia is sticking stubbornly by its unpopular decision to convert Interstate 95 into one big toll road. The idea is to double-tax drivers from the North Carolina border all the way up to Stafford County and then have high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes take over up to Interstate 395. The commonwealth’s residents instinctively know this is a dumb idea.

Last month, a Quinnipiac University survey found 52 percent don’t want tolls. Notably, the opposition was spread equally among Republicans, Democrats, independents, men and women. And the results likely would have been far more negative if voters had realized HOT schemes have a long history of failure. Take Georgia, which took away 15 miles of existing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes last month to charge motorists up to $5.40 for the privilege of commuting between DeKalb and Gwinnett counties on Interstate 85 - a trip that previously had been free.

The social engineers behind such grand experiments pretend tolling is a “free-market” solution to congestion. Instead of adding new capacity to meet demand, the idea is to price the existing, insufficient capacity and “manage” the demand. It all works out perfectly in the confines of an ivory tower, but it’s a disaster when translated onto the asphalt. “We typically don’t have complete-halt traffic here,” said Lawrenceville, Ga., resident Chris Haley about his new commute. “But in the first few weeks the lanes were implemented, it was near at a dead stop. You’re looking over in the left-hand HOT lane, and it’s empty.”

Mr. Haley told The Washington Times that he was so outraged that his daily commute doubled from 40 to 90 minutes a day that he set up the website StopPeachPass.org to chronicle the project’s failings. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal took note of the problem and intervened to lower the sky-high tolls. With cheaper rates, more people are using the HOT lanes, but the basic problem remains. Mr. Haley’s analysis of the road’s traffic data shows the same total number of people are using the regular freeway lanes, but they’re being forced to leave far earlier or later than they had done previously to avoid the jam.

It’s hard to see how the lanes could survive financially at prices and traffic levels far below projections. Such unrealistic predictions are common. The most recent annual report for Washington state’s 3-year-old HOT lanes on State Route 167 boasts of extracting $420,400 in gross revenue from drivers, but it neglects to mention the net loss of $173,939 through March 2011.

So the states lose money and commuters are stuck with higher bills and worse traffic. It turns out that the only winners here are the private contractors responsible for the massive overhead needed to keep the tolling operation running smoothly. Little surprise that these companies frequently can be found behind the scenes lavishing money on legislators and encouraging pundits to sing the praises of the schemes that line their pockets.

When government sets out to manipulate public behavior, failure is the inevitable result. Virginia’s transportation problem won’t be solved unless the commonwealth stops wasting $6 billion on transit boondoggles like the Metro to Dulles International Airport. That money, which is being taken from drivers, should be invested instead in maximizing general freeway capacity by doing away with failed HOV and HOT experiments.


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Link to article here.

Getting to the truth about HOT-lane operations

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an Atlanta-based free-market think tank, wields a lot of influence with the state’s conservative leadership. The foundation has also been a leading advocate of public and private toll-road projects, including the controversial I-85 HOT-lane conversion.

In an article headlined “State must ensure Georgians warm up to HOT lanes,” GPPF vice president Benita Dodd pleads for patience from commuters and politicians alike, saying it’s much too early to proclaim the I-85 project a failure. In other cities, she points out, it took some time before motorists got used to the idea and began to use HOT lanes regularly.

Her point is valid. When Ga. 400 first opened, Atlanta media outlets, including this newspaper, ran a lot of stories pointing out that very few people were using the highway. That situation changed pretty quickly as commuters changed their travel patterns.

To bolster public patience, Dodd cites the example of State Route 91 in southern California. After HOT lanes opened on that highly congested route, Dodd writes, toll-paying commuters not only saved 30 minutes on a 10-mile trip, “Rush-hour speeds in the regular lanes increased by 17 mph and peak-period congestion in the morning was reduced by over an hour.”

That does sound highly encouraging — a 17-mph increase in the general lanes! Unfortunately, it has not exactly been the experience of commuters in the I-85 corridor, where motorists in the regular lanes complain that commutes have gotten considerably longer. Why has our experience been so different?

Well, here in Georgia, the two new HOT lanes — one in each direction — were carved out of existing interstate, pushing traffic into the remaining lanes. In California, traffic flow improved because four additional travel lanes — two in each direction — were built in the median of SR 91 as HOT lanes. In other words, significant new capacity — not HOT-lane technology — accounted for the improvement cited by Dodd. (By the way, that improvement proved temporary, largely disappearing as additional traffic was drawn by that additional capacity.)

GPPF has also tried to dispel the notion of HOT lanes as “Lexus lanes,” which it defines as “an elitist way to enable wealthier, paying motorists to bypass the congestion that the unwashed masses must endure.” Again citing California’s experience, GPPF claims that HOT-lane users on SR 91 were no different demographically than those using regular lanes.

The Reason Foundation, the libertarian think tank that has championed HOT lanes on the national level, makes similar claims, arguing that “studies of the 91 Express Lanes indicate that use increases slightly with income group.” However, the studies cited by Reason and GPPF directly contradict what they claim.

According to those studies, commuters with incomes above $100,000 were more than twice as likely to use the toll lanes frequently than those making less than $60,000. That is not a “slight increase” among income groups. The studies also found that as fares rose higher and higher, usage by middle-income commuters dropped significantly.

“The significant decline in reported toll lane use by commuters in the $40-60K category suggests that these middle-income commuters have been unusually sensitive to the toll increases, and are less willing to pay tolls despite the worsening traffic congestion in the corridor,” the study concluded.

That trend could be important to travelers in the I-85 corridor as that project matures, usage increases and tolls are raised to fend off congestion. (Today, the highest toll collected on SR 91 is $9.85 for the 10-mile trip, more than double the highest fare of 10 years ago.)

Interestingly, that study, led by Edward Sullivan of Cal Poly State University, also found that SR 91 commuters consistently overestimate how much time they save by using the toll lanes, overshooting the mark by anywhere from five to 30 minutes a trip.

“It suggests that making available accurate data on actual toll lane time savings might result in reduced toll lane use,” the writers warn. In other words, it’s not the deal it may appear to be, although you may already know that.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 02 November 2011 )
 
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