Atlanta’s Cautionary Tale of HOT Lanes

Toll Express Lanes have been popping up in freeway medians around the country, in places like Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, Miami, Houston, Minneapolis, Seattle, Atlanta, and of course Northern Virginia.  Other projects are underway or planned in Colorado, Charlotte, and many more to come in the Bay Area.  The implementations vary, some operate on a fixed toll schedule based on time of day, others use dynamic pricing.  Most so far have been built by state agencies like CalTrans and the Georgia State Tollway Authority, some are Public-Private Partnerships like Virginia and U.S. 36 in Denver.

With so many Express Lane projects, we can learn from experiences elsewhere in the country.  The Washington Post just published an article about the Atlanta experience on I-85.  It has some tough lessons for Virginia.  In Atlanta, tolls are hitting $10 each direction for a 15 mile stretch, while speeds have decreased below 45 mph.  While the Georgia government has intervened with the pricing there, here in Virginia the concessionaire gets an unregulated monopoly on Express Lanes.  VDOT’s contracts allow the operator to toll as much as they like, with no limits.

Government operation of express lanes — what Maryland does in all cases and what Virginia is planning to do only on I-66 inside the Beltway — provides some flexibility over private operation. A government authority will find it easier to be in the “mobility business,” using revenue to create financial incentives for alternative forms of commuting. Private companies have contractual obligations to the governments they work with, but beyond that, they’re responsible to their their stockholders and bondholders, rather than taxpayers.

Variable tolling is one way to manage congestion, but just one way, and a negative one at that.” – Washington Post

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6 Responses to Atlanta’s Cautionary Tale of HOT Lanes

  1. Mark says:

    This is why it is important to have two HOT lanes in each direction (I-495/I-95) and have barrier separation. Atlanta has only one in each direction,with no barrier which makes the lane difficult to control during high capacity periods. Yesterday, the I-95 toll was $22.50 between Edsel road and Stafford County (29 Miles) at one point. But ~1/3 of the users are HOV3 (free). The system is working as designed. The HOT lanes are all about choices. This concept is much better than adding General Purpose Lanes.

    The Dulles Greenway toll system is much worse than the HOT system.($5 regardless of distance or time of day)

    A private company will come up with the best I-66 solution because they need a Return on Investment (ROI). Taking homes will not help their ROI.

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    • Bryan says:

      Mark, while the I-85 Express Lanes (HOT) do not have a firm barrier, they do have double solid lines that are illegal to cross. As for I-95 in Virginia, with public-private restrictions in place to prevent Virginia from improving Route 1, the Occoquan Bridge, or even I-95 itself without providing significant compensation to the private company, and mandating taxpayers to pay the private company if too many carpoolers and buses use the lanes, we agree that the system is “working as designed.” That is one of the problems.

      As for I-66, the planned project is another “public-private partnership.” VDOT will use its public eminent domain powers from the Commonwealth to take homes, and effectively destroy far more from the negative externalities of this project. They will do this while tearing up transit-oriented neighborhoods, schools, and park land. The private concessionaire receives an unregulated monopoly on toll lanes and the toll revenue, while only having to pay for $1 Billion of the VDOT’s estimated $3 Billion I-66 Transformation cost.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark says:

    Bryan,

    It is also illegal to cross into the HOV lane on I-66 between route 50 and the beltway but people do it anyway and if anyone is pulled over, traffic goes to a standstill.

    For I-95, Transurban needs to prove Route One/Occoquan improvements and HOV/Buses are negativity affecting revenue and Rate of Return on Investment. Based on initial I-95 revenue, Transurban is going to be ok. Widening Route 1/ Occoquan will probably help Transurban in the long run as it will induce travel demand in the corridor.

    For I-66 outside the beltway, VDOT is not going to pay $2 billion for this project. At best it will be $500 million for the I-66/Route 28 interchange improvement, auxiliary lanes, park and ride lots, buses, bike/ped infrastructure and ITS.

    In general, I am in favor are starting/ending express lanes just to the east of Nutley and having six transition lanes (general and auxiliary) to the Beltway with no changes to the I-66/I-495 interchange. This will reduce the need to take property in the Dunn Loring area.

    I am also an advocate for extending Metrorail to Fair Oaks Mall. Mainly due to the inadequate road network adjacent to I-66. i.e Route 50 and Route 29 merge in the City of Fairfax and there is no adequate east/west road between Route 50 and Route 123 north of I-66. This metro rail improvement should not be more than $250 million (4 miles for straight at grade track/no bridges/one station/24 rail cars). The Fair Oaks area already has 10,000 parking spaces within a ½ mile of I-66. Beyond Fair Oaks, it is not economically feasible to support Metrorail(bus/VRE). Core Metro Capacity can be address by 8 car trains and turning back every 3rd Silver line train at Mclean or East Falls Church.

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    • Bryan says:

      Mark,

      In the Compensation Agreement between Virginia and the I-95 Concessionaire (95 Express Lanes LLC), any improvements to either parallel US 1 or the Occoquan Bridge are treated as compensation event, unless the concessionaire is already receiving their highest revenue initial rate of return.

      VDOT’s own cost estimates, as communicated in public meetings is that their expected cost for the existing I-66 plans is $2-3 Billion. They also anticipate $1 Billion of construction fronted by the winning concessionaire based on their ability to collect toll revenue. That leaves a funding gap of $1-2 Billion, to be paid for with local, state, and federal tax dollars. All of this assumes the project could actually be built for the initial estimates, in the ambitious 4 year timeframe. Any bonds issued would further increase the taxpayer burden with interest. By comparison, VDOT spent $100 Million for resurfacing I-66 from the Beltway to US 50 in 2011 and that did not include any major bridge work or construction.

      Your idea for extending Metrorail to US 50/Fair Oaks Mall has merit due to the high value for the cost. I am not sure what Metro would need to operate an end station efficiently there, but would unlikely to be much different from the current Silver terminus at Wiehle Avenue. I do believe that extending further west would be at least as economically feasible as the current Silver project being built to Ashburn. VRE already goes significantly further west to Manassas with very good ridership numbers. The constraint for VRE offering more trains is reduced track capacity over CSX’s aging Long Bridge that crosses the Potomac.
      I know Metro is already looking for funding for more 8 car trains (besides the rolling stock, they also need power upgrades). Turning back trains at McLean would be interesting, unfortunately I’m not sure they can do this efficiently without a pocket track, which unfortunately was removed from the design. The original plan to turn silver trains around at Stadium/Armory was also not implemented for similar reasons.

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      • Mark says:

        Bryan,

        I believe the overall scope of the I-66 roadway project will be reduced, especially if your group can reduce the scope between Nutley and the Beltway and the I-495/I-66 Interchange. I do not believe connecting the I-66 and I-495 HOT lanes provides enough benefit relative to the cost ($ and ROW)

        Below is a link I plan to send VDOT regarding my recommendations from I-66 between Nutley and I-495:

        http://novarapidtransit.org/I-66_Improvement_Alternative_between_Nutley_and_I-495.pdf

        This is very similar to how I-495 and I-95/I-395 are connected and will keep VDOT within its 300’ ROW

        I am a strong advocate for extending VRE to Gainesville and for expanding the Long Bridge. Expanding VRE was part of the top mobility scenario (along with HOT lanes and Metro Extension) in the Tier 1 EIS.

        Below is my recommendation for a Fair Oaks Mall Metro Extension I sent to VDOT/VDRPT
        http://novarapidtransit.org/Fair_Oaks_Metro_Extension_040715.pdf

        All the silver line stations are design to have significant land use densities within a ½ mile. Past Fair Oaks, I do not believe there will be significant land densities in Centreville, Gainesville or Haymarket. (Bi-direction bus and VRE service is a better investment.)

        Thanks,
        Mark S.

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      • Bryan says:

        Upgrading the Potomac River Long Bridge is a “Public-Private Partnership” that we can all agree on. Besides helping its owner railroad CSX, this would have many benefits for Virginia Rail Express riders, Amtrak, and even MARC who would like to provide commuter service to Old Town/King Street from Baltimore. Meanwhile we have VDOT instead focusing on a Cars First approach to long commutes. I believe your recommendations have much merit.

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