GA/I-85 Express Lanes' wild start - tolls too high, lanes near empty, Governor steps in

October 8, 2011

The launch of managed toll lanes this week on I-85 northeast of Atlanta was so mismanaged that the state Governor intervened after three days and very publicly ordered changes.  For three nights TV, radio and the press in Atlanta reported the fiasco of noticeably worse congestion in the general purpose lanes alongside almost empty "Express" or toll managed lanes on the big highway northeast out of Atlanta, the first in a huge proposed network.

Mismanaged lanes they clearly were, despite dynamic pricing which allows toll rates to be fine-tuned from minute to minute to reflect changing lane occupancy or density of traffic and to keep optimum levels of traffic - enough traffic to make good use of the lane while not so much as to cause slowdowns.

Monday through Thursday morning the competitive Atlanta media were all reporting the I-85 toll lanes fiasco as the big local news item. TV helicopters clattered up and down the interstate producing video of almost empty Express Lanes leftside of a double white line, alongside of five clogged general purpose lanes each direction. Reporters set up on overpasses or reported from the choppers overhead. Still photographers used every kind of mount to get pictures.

And of course they had plenty of indignant motorists to interview - people complaining bitterly of worsened congestion, high tolls, lack of access/egress points and the waste of the empty lane.

"Soft launch"

Saturday October 1 the State Road and Toll Authority (SRTA) started what they called a "soft launch."

Being a weekend on what is principally a commuter route traffic was light and it was mainly an opportunity to test systems.

Real tolling started Monday morning Oct 3, and it turned out to be the "hard launch." A rocky launch?

We talked to Malika Wilkins the communications chief, midweek. We asked if there was data on trip numbers in the lanes, the range and average toll rates, proportions of tolls and HOV, travel times etc.

She said there would the full week's data available next Tuesday. She said tolls for the whole 16 miles and five segments had been $5.40. That was the "highest peak" she said. She didn't acknowledge any problems, but said volumes were ramping up in an indirect acknowledgement of low traffic, we guess.

We asked about "screwups?" Perhaps it was a crudely put question but we got no acknowledgment of the awful local media coverage, or the imminent intervention of the state governor (maybe she didn't yet know.)

Governor intervenes

Thursday late morning Georgia Governor Nathan Deal's office issued a press release under the headline "Deal lowers toll rates."

It led off saying "in coordination with the State Road and Tollway Authority, Gov. Nathan Deal will implement changes to improve usage of the new High Occupancy Toll lanes on I-85."

It quoted him: "Looking at what we've learned from our first four work days with the HOT lanes, I've asked SRTA to improve utilization of the express lanes. In the short term, the toll rate will (be ?) lower - starting with Thursday afternoon's commute - but the effective rate will continue to change to regulate speed and volume."

The Governor's statement also suggested other radical changes he is seeking in taking charge of the project:

- more access/exit points

- a waiver from the Feds on the HOV3 rule for eligibility to free rides

The project is financed largely by the FHWA under its value pricing grants program and the HOV3 rule is built into the agreement between the state and the Feds.

The press release quoted the Governor:

"I-85 has long required two passengers for the express lanes. Federal regulations in effect with the HOT lanes increased the requirement to three passengers. I will pursue a federal waiver to move the requirement back to two."

Access/egress points

On access/egress points - presently an average of 3 miles, 5km apart - the Governor is quoted:

"Even before the lanes opened, we knew we needed to improve the access and exit points in the southbound direction. SRTA and the Georgia Department of Transportation are working together and I've directed them to prioritize this action."

As an HOV lane access and egress was allowed anywhere.

The press release ends with the Governor taking responsibility for future operation:

"As governor, I'm committed to finding transportation solutions that help Georgians get to work and back home to their families. I will continue to monitor the situation as drivers become more accustomed to this new system."

It ends on transponders issued: "SRTA continues to issue, on average, 1,700 Peach Passes a day. As of today, there are 75,000 passes in circulation. The state is well on its way to reaching its target of 175,000 Peach Passes in use."

15.6 miles, 25km, 2x1 lanes

 The I-85 Express lanes extend for 15.6 miles, 25km northeast of Atlanta from around the I-285 belt out into Gwinnett County. It uses the pavement of existing single HOV lanes in which two-and-more person cars (HOV2) plus vans and transit buses traveled for free to Sept 30.

With the HOV2 eligibility the lanes sometimes became congested and slowed - in the worst traffic conditions providing no time trip advantage over the general purpose lanes.

HOV2 to HOV3

A major change introduced Oct 1 with the introduction of tolling was raising the HOV eligibility from HOV2 to HOV3, meaning that two-occupant cars, previously traveling free are now subject to the toll in the Express Lanes.

There are four toll zones southbound and five northbound, and 37 gantry points for toll equipment.

These points have laser profilers for vehicle classification at entry and exit points to the rightside general purpose lanes. The Express Lane is separated by a double white line and has surveillance equipment for enforcement.

Pricing methodology

The RFP for system contractors described the pricing methodology:

"Dynamic pricing will be utilized with toll rates recalculated and redisplayed on the CMS 24 hours a day. Measured vehicle congestion of all thru lanes of a Toll Section (not only the HOT Lane) will be used as the basis of that Toll Section's congestion calculation.

"The Toll Schedule in use at the time a vehicle enters any portion of the HOT Lane will be used to calculate the toll due for each section travelled by the vehicle in a single direction from initial entry to the first authorized exit, for that particular HOT Lane Corridor (the initial HOT Lane Project consists of two (2) Corridors: one being southbound and the other northbound).

"Tolls charged for use of the HOT Lanes will vary dynamically over a set period of time, as yet to be
determined, in order to control the number of vehicles in the HOT Lane for the customers' travel time reliability."Another ETCC job

In Atlanta unlike Washington state and Miami the media have focussed their coverage entirely on the state agencies in charge - State Road and Toll Authority (SRTA) and Georgia DOT, not on contractors working for them.

Civil engineering and cabling is being done by a local company World Fiber Technologies.

ETCC is doing the front end in-lane and toll point work plus the overall back office and system work. That apparently includes the key pricing algorithms - the most software-heavy part of the job.

TransCore is supplying the 6C sticker tag transponders, brandnamed PEACH PASS that are being given away free to Express Lanes users.

Federal Signal is supplying its multiprotocol Sirit readers, TransCore having withdrawn the offer of their E6 multiprotocol readers - purportedly on grounds of legal issues with Intermec. Other reports  earlier in the year said the E6 has had technical problems reading the 6C tags, but we haven't checked lately on whether those issues are resolved.

Multiprotocol readers were specified because GDOT and SRTA want to transition to 6C tags from the 6B-derivative TransCore tags in use of Georgia 400 tollroad.  They need to be able to read both 6B and 6C until the older TransCore tags are phased out.

Managed Lane Network

For a number of years Georgia DOT and the regional planning organization have been developing a  a "Metro Atlanta Managed Lanes System Plan." This has looked at developing a 2+2 HOT lane network by adding one lane and converting another lane to each direction of area expressways inside the I-285 belt route and building two extra lanes outside per direction, some elevated.

Truck-only toll lanes have also been studied for the more heavily truck routes.  

Five stages or "Tiers" are laid out for an 1,100 lane-mile, 1750 lane-km network costing $16.2b of which it is estimated about $9b would be self-financing through concessions with investor groups. The most urgent and financeable projects seem to be on the northern side of Atlanta, notable I-75 to the northwest, GA400 north and I-85 to the northeast together with the segment of I-285 that links all three.

This part, Tier 1 is about $3 billion in project cost. Just this set of projects - if they happen - would dwarf the present and previous toll work in the area.

The overall network of the five 'tiers' has been extensively modeled. In reviewing the studies and presentations we were struck by the emphasis on projected 2035 traffic and revenue numbers and on the phasing and priorities.

It may be that too little attention has been given to detailed planning and management of the early stages. The first week of the first phase of the first Tier of I-85 could seriously damage confidence in the whole larger scheme - if they don't now recover quickly.

We don't have a clue, yet anyway, as to why the launch went so badly, so we have no idea if they can recover.

Unprecedentedly wild startup

GA/I-85 is by far the wildest start to any of the toll/HOT/managed/express lanes projects in the US so far:

- CA91 Express Lanes LA area

- CA/I-15 San Diego

- MN/I-394 Minneapolis

- MN/I-35W

- CO/I-25 Denver

- TX/I-10 Houston

- UT/I-15 Salt Lake City

- FL/I-95 Miami

- WA167 Seattle

These earlier ones had rather uneventful, lightly publicized and uncontroversial startups.

In none of them did a Governor intervene, and take personal responsibility.

earlier reports on GA/I-85 Express Lanes:

Dec 2010 RFP 18000-6C tags, multiprotocol readers:

Feb 2011 decision to buy readers from Fed Signal and TransCore:

on the May 2011 Intermec challenge to use of multiprotocol E6 readers:

official sites

TOLLROADSnews 2011-10-07

Further Reading

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