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Public roads as a needs based service? It’s HOT

What’s a HOT lane?
High Occupancy Toll lanes (HOT) are popular with transit authority officials as a tactic to relieve congestion on our public roadways; at least that’s how it’s explained to the public. Just look at this growing list of toll roads. The concept is that a designated lane is equipped with electronic detection devices that can track a motorist’s movement in the lane. Whereas a traditional High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane is free for vehicles with more than one passenger, the HOT lanes require a toll for single or double occupant vehicles.

The selling proposition to the public is “guaranteed trip times.” By using variable tolls based on the amount of traffic in the lane, authorities can game the amount of cars in the lane and thus guarantee it continues to move above the speeds of the non toll lanes.  Planners say this gives everyone a chance to use the lane and a faster ride when they need it. Opponents say that it creates a lane for the wealthy (“Lexus lane”) and that they shouldn’t have to pay for a lane already paved with tax payer dollars.

Planners have inadvertently created a needs based service.
Let’s be honest. HOT lanes are creative way to raise revenue for the government piggy bank. It’s not a new tax per say because it’s an optional fee based on usage. I’m not against the government collecting money because I enjoy and benefit from many of the services it provides to me.

But what authorities have created with HOT lanes is a needs based service. I define a needs based service as something that people need to solve a problem in their lives at a specific point in time.  It’s something that people will pay a premium to receive to solve their problem quicker than they could otherwise.

Here are some common examples:

  • Overnight shipping – You know, when you forget that valentine’s present for your significant other and need it sent out yesterday.
  • Gift wrapping – For when you want to send a special gift to someone who is not with you. Having it gift wrapped when it arrives adds a nice touch.
  • Custom logos on business products – You can certainly buy the products without your brand or affiliation. Adding the logo is something you’ll pay extra to receive.

Now we have variable based toll lanes that are available, at a price, to save commuters a few minutes while getting from point A to point B.  When you are late for an appointment or meeting and can’t wait through the usual traffic jam it becomes a solution to a need.

Is it wrong to repurpose a public road as a toll lane?
Toll roads aren’t new. They’re all over the country. Does it matter if a road was built with the agreement that a toll fund would pay for the construction versus a road that is converted to tolls after it’s built with general tax dollars? Is it right to for taxpayers to pay twice to receive the benefits of a government service? These are great questions and worthy of healthy debate.

You may have guessed that my commute is impacted by a HOT lane.
I’m noodling these thoughts because I’m watching and using a HOT lane each day during my commute to work.  I have not paid to use the lane yet, and most of my fellow commuters have not either. In fact what’s happened is that the general purpose lanes have more traffic and the HOT lanes are generally empty. The lack of vehicles in the HOT lane was so far under estimates that officials quickly reduced the amount of the toll in an effort to get more commuters in the lane.

Is this the answer to large congestion problems? Not from what I’ve observed. Many people refuse to use pay the toll to enter the HOT lanes out of principal that it doesn’t have equal access to everyone.  As a result, the lanes and have created new traffic issues on surface streets as commuters look to avoid the backup in the general purpose lanes on the interstate. Bottom line is that the lanes may be helping the few, but they’ve made the commute longer for most people.

As a marketer, I love the idea of needs based services.
What marketer doesn’t like premium services? They are highly profitable. Customers respect and value needs based services also. They use it when they need it and are willing (maybe not happy about it) to pay extra to get it.

But a HOT lane is having a tough time gaining the acceptance from most of the public. I wonder if the negative reaction from many people is because the idea is new and represents change? If the lane was built with the purpose of functioning as a HOT lane from the outset and funded by the tolls would it thought of differently? Will negative perception to the lane fade with time?

Transit authority planners continue to push this idea as a solution for transit issues. Since the majority of public reaction is negative, someone needs to ask if there is a better way. But with a revenue stream attached to them, HOT lanes will be a difficult thing for transit authorities to let go.

Our definition of ‘normal’ for transportation options may be changing before our eyes. What do you think?

HOV toll lanes: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Last month the Gwinnett Daily Post reported that a section of the I-85 high occupancy lanes in metro Atlanta would be converted to toll lanes.  The story was of particular interest to me because the section that will convert to toll lanes is from Old Peachtree Road to I-285.  That’s exactly the stretch of I-85 that I use every day to get to work. For the record, I carpool with a co-worker anywhere from two to four days a week (depending on schedules) and make use of the existing toll-free HOV lanes.

I’ve seen a few message boards on this topic and the general public opinion is overwhelmingly negative.  The poll question from the Gwinnett Daily Post last week asked readers if they were in favor of the lanes becoming a toll-lane.  A whopping 88% responded that they thought this was a bad idea. Here’s my take on this:

The Good

  • The government is continuously looking for ways to alleviate traffic burdens.
  • The government continues to encourage use of high occupancy lanes which both help the environment as well as reduce the overall traffic volume.
  • The government is basing this tactic from a study in California.  I’m still trying to think through statistics of use there, but at least they are looking to learn from similar programs already installed.
  • The grant includes $30 million to buy 36 new buses and expand commute parking lots.

The Bad

  • There’s a $110 million dollar grant from the Federal Government for this work.  Sounds like a good deal for some Georgians to take advantage of some free money.  But I’m left to wonder about the increased tax burden to others.
  • The state is required to match $37 million from it’s own piggy bank.  Where’s that coming from?
  • This is coming at a time when a major re-engineering effort to rework the I-85 / 316 split was recently completed.  The results of that project have been extremly successful.  Traffic flow has been noticeably better during peak hours.
  • The public is definitely not sold on this idea.  Just look at the commentaries being posted.  Most people feel that this is another tax ploy and is intended to benefit the wealthy more than those who are truly trying to conserve by sharing a car.   It’s being called the “Lexus Lane”.

The Ugly

  • As a regular user of the existing toll-free HOV lane I can tell you that on some days it doesn’t move any faster than than the standard lanes. Paying a fee for sitting in the HOV lane is no bueno.
  • Paying a fee for a 2-person carpool during peak hours will probably remove all of the financial incentive to saving on gas and maintenance costs. I see that having a negative impact on overall usage rates.
  • For Gwinnett County residents, this comes right after the county forced its residents to go a single (government chosen) waste collection service and after it brought a AAA baseball franchise to the county and stuck a bloated tax bill to residents.  The amount of government intervention in large financial decisions is starting to take its own toll on residents.
  • From what I’ve read, the technology to gauge your fee will be a device that is installed on or within your car that registers with sensors in the road.
    • It’s not clear how it works if you ride in the lane without a device.  (Enforcement)
    • So now the government can track my whereabouts in a car?  How do we know these devices are not sending other types of data?
    • I wonder what the installation and setup fee will be for the devices.

What are your thoughts?  Do you live in an area like this or will you be affected by the change on I-85 in the Atlanta area?