Report Finds Link Between Income and Use for Atlanta’s Managed Lanes

As Atlanta increasingly turns to managed highway lanes as a traffic strategy, a new report looks at whether income plays a role in which drivers are using High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. A Highway for All? Economic Use Patterns for Atlanta’s HOT Lanes, released by the Southern Environmental Law Center, confirms that drivers from higher-income ZIP codes are generally more likely to use the lanes. 

The first project of its kind in the region, Atlanta’s I-85 HOT lanes – where a one-way toll ranges from a few cents to over $7.00, depending on the amount of traffic – have been criticized on equity grounds and even nicknamed “Lexus Lanes,” based on the assumption that higher income drivers are more likely to pay the toll to use these lanes. This report, however, is the first to actually examine driver data to confirm a correlation between income and use.

“While this report backs the common sense assumption that drivers with higher incomes are more likely to use the HOT lanes, it’s important to think about the policy implications of these lanes,” said Brian Gist, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Substantial tax dollars have been used to build this highway project, so we need to make sure that Georgians of all income levels are able to use and benefit from it.” 

The report analyzes transaction data for the I-85 toll lanes and finds a positive relationship between the median income of drivers’ ZIP codes and of the ZIP code’s per capita HOT lane use. For example, the report finds that the ZIP code with the highest median income ($102,000) had over five times as many HOT lane trips per person as the lowest median income ZIP code ($43,700). Although income is not the only factor influencing use, the clear relationship between income and use is consistent with similar research elsewhere in the country as a number of cities have begun to use managed lanes.

When approving the I-85 HOT Lanes in 2010, the Federal Highway Administration committed to conduct an analysis of the social equity impacts of the project after one year of operation, but no such study has been completed. In the meantime, three other managed lanes costing over $1 billion are in the plans for metro Atlanta, and transportation officials have described managed lanes as the foundation for the region’s long-term transportation plan.

“The I-85 HOT lanes were built as a ‘demonstration project’ but the results of this experiment haven’t been fully examined,” said Gist. “While this report is just a first look, it suggests that we need to do more due diligence to better understand this issue and what polices are needed to implement to offset these inequities.”

In addition to analyzing user data, the report outlines a number of mitigation policies for the I-85 HOT lanes and future managed lanes to better allocate the benefits across all income groups. These include:

• Maximize carpool access
• Minimize state funding for variable toll lane projects
• Use toll revenue to subsidize parallel transit service
• Provide minimum access for all registered users

Download the report: http://www.southernenvironment.orghttps://www.southernenvironment.org/uploads/publications/selcatlantahotlanereport.pdf

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