Are Atlanta's Interstate 85 Toll Lanes really Lexus Lanes?

A new report has given a high occupancy toll lane system in Atlanta a possible "Lexus Lane" label, a term used to show that highway toll lanes are just for the wealthy. Here in Southern California, numerous public agencies have conducted studies on HOT lanes and their results seriously question this notion. So does Atlanta really have Lexus Lanes? Here's an analysis.

Analysis of the study A Highway for All?

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), an Atlanta-based regional nonprofit organization engaged in environmental advocacy, including promoting more sustainable transportation policies, compiled the report A Highway for All? It suggests that the I-85 Express Lanes primarily caters to wealthy drivers and thus contributes toward income inequality. The high occupancy toll lane system mandates a Peach Pass transponder for all vehicles and has a carpool requirement of 3 or more for free travel. It spans 16 miles on the northern end of Atlanta from Old Peachtree Road to Chamblee Tucker Road.

The report starts off describing the presence of other HOT lane systems throughout the country, the state's plans to expand the toll lane network to other Atlanta freeways, and then it jumps into the debate regarding income demographics:

Three general approaches have been used to assess the equity impacts of managed lanes. The first and most common approach uses driver opinion and willingness-to-pay surveys to discern whether low-income drivers have different opinions of managed lanes than higher-income drivers. The second approach examines whether low-income drivers enroll in the managed lane tolling program or obtain toll transponders at differing rates than higher-income drivers. The third and least common approach examines actual data to determine whether managed lane use changes with income level. As a whole, these studies find that drivers of all income groups share similar opinions of the lanes, enroll in the tolling programs at comparable rates, and on occasion use the lanes. However, the studies of actual use data find that low-income drivers use managed lanes less frequently than their higher-income counterparts.

San Diego County I-15 Express Lanes with
free non-transponder 2+ carpooling
And that last point is true. Most agencies concur that many toll-paying HOT lane patrons don't use the lanes every day, but at times when they need a fast travel option. For instance, we at A Better Inland Empire have a standard FasTrak transponder and use the high occupancy toll lane systems along both the SR-91 into Orange County and the I-15 in San Diego County when traveling to/from those areas, but certainly not on a daily basis. Many of our trips are also toll free carpool trips. We'll get to that in a moment. Regarding the surveys, we'll have to search for and take a look at the specific questions asked and where the surveys were sent out before making a judgement. The fact also remains that there are significant groups of people who are willing to buy their way into a carpool lane to bypass traffic.

Not surprisingly, Georgia state officials disagree with A Highway for All? The State Road and Tollway Authority told WSB-TV News, "With respect to the top ZIP codes, the report shows that the people most likely to use the lanes are those who live near the top end of the corridor. When you compare the top five median income ZIP codes map to the top five highest-use ZIP codes map, only two of the ZIP codes overlap." That's true. According to the report, here are the top five Atlanta ZIP codes that use the toll lanes: 30019, 30024, 30043, 30519, and 30548. Those areas anchor the northern endpoint area of the toll lanes. Factor in households making more than $80,000 per year and that leaves 30019 and 30024. By the way, that's household income, not individuals. The possibility of multiple workers living under a single roof has not been ruled out. Then, we have the carpool factor.

Carpools with Peach Pass toll transponder travel free

We'll keep this short. Carpools 3 or more with a Peach Pass transponder can travel in the I-85 Express Lanes free. Do we have any specific information on what percentages of the top five ZIP codes are toll free carpoolers? That remains unanswered. To be fair, when an agency mandates a toll transponder for free carpoolers, the free carpool-to-toll ratio generally leans more toward more toll-paying traffic as the extra capacity left behind by displaced non-registered carpoolers is sold to toll paying traffic.

Some points that A Highway for All and we recommend to officials...

The report does make two valid recommendations of fixing this toll lane system. Let's take a look.

Maximize Carpool Access: Before they were converted into HOT lanes, the managed lanes on I-85 were operated as carpool lanes. As part of this conversion, the occupancy requirement for high-occupancy vehicles was raised from two-persons to three. This change deters the formation of carpools and makes it more difficult for lower-income drivers to utilize the lanes via the untolled carpool option. Future toll lane proposals in the metro Atlanta region contemplate eliminating the high-occupancy option altogether. Allowing two-person carpools to utilize the region’s managed lanes is sound policy both from an equity and a transportation performance perspective.

Concept: 91 Express Lanes with free
non-transponder 3+ carpooling
While the 2+ occupancy requirement could be questioned if local carpool lanes are congested, adopting free non-transponder 3+ carpooling during peak congestion and 2+ carpooling at other times would be sound and fair policy as The Transit Coalition has been advocating.

We do understand that changing a congested carpool lane's occupancy requirement from 2 to 3 will be somewhat chaotic as 2-person carpools would be displaced, but implementing a strong marketing campaign to form 3+ carpools, vanpools, and upgrading express transit services prior to implementation would offset much of that. Such a campaign to form 3+ carpools would have to include abolishing the mandate to register for a toll transponder.

While we're on that topic, proposals of placing mandatory tolls and transponder mandates on carpoolers is irresponsible; that will drive HOV's out of the express lanes and lure more toll-paying non-HOV's into the lanes. In addition, long term planning should include doubling the HOT lane capacity with two express lanes in each direction which could make free non-transponder 2+ carpooling a feasible option with strict land use controls to combat urban sprawl in the outer regions and direct access ramps to adjacent park & ride lots and transit stations for HOV's. Speaking of that...

Use Toll Revenue to Fund Parallel Transit Service: Transit vehicles use managed lanes free of charge, and managed lane supporters argue that low-income commuters can benefit from these projects by using transit. However, this argument assumes the existence and sufficiency of transit service in the managed lane corridor. Using a portion of toll revenues from the managed lanes to fund transit service in the corridor ensures that this untolled option exists. A number of states have adopted laws requiring toll lane revenues to be flexed to support parallel transit service as mitigation strategy, and Georgia should do the same.

While the income argument is certainly debatable, having bus infrastructure and all day express transit services in place is certainly a desirable option. Do you ever wonder why we advocate for bus transit infrastructure on proposed high occupancy toll lanes with services from early morning to late night?

Lexus Lanes?

Is the I-85 Express Lanes, let alone HOT lanes in general A Highway for All? Based on the facts, the I-85 Lexus Lanes are not just for the rich. However if agencies in Atlanta together with LA Metro, OCTA and RCTC want to move more people in its express lanes than cars, the mandatory tolls for HOV's and the transponder mandate needs to be dropped. We want toll lanes done right.