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Report explores link between toll lanes and income

In this file photo, cars travel in the toll lanes while the southbound traffic on Interstate 85 is backed up during a morning rush hour.

In this file photo, cars travel in the toll lanes while the southbound traffic on Interstate 85 is backed up during a morning rush hour.

LAWRENCEVILLE — A recent report says that Gwinnett’s managed lanes deserve their nickname as “Lexus lanes,” although state officials say the analysis is flawed and the report is skewed.

The Southern Environmental Law Center report appears to confirm suspicions that the high-occupancy toll lanes — which charge a toll for a faster trip through traffic — along Interstate 85 would be traversed by wealthier people.

While drivers’ financial information was not available for the study, the report analyzed the ZIP code data that showed that drivers from the area with the highest per capita income ($102,000) were five times more likely to pay the toll as those from the area with the lowest per capita income ($43,700).

“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.”

But Bert Brantley of the State Road and Tollway Authority notes that those wealthier ZIP codes are farther up the I-85 corridor, making those drivers the ones more likely to use the interstate for a longer distance. Plus, the report excludes people who use the managed lanes for non-tolled trips, which comprised 14 percent of the traffic during the study period.

“The Georgia Tech study that is due out later this year found that the most frequent vehicles used on the I-85 HOT lanes are the Honda Civic, Toyota Camry, Ford F-150, and Nissan Altima. These are not the luxury cars that are often cited anecdotally,” Brantley said, pointing out that the median income of the ZIP code for the most drivers, by a large margin, is $69,000, which is in line with the county’s average median income of $64,000.

“We are constantly evaluating the data that we collect to find better ways to serve our customers,” Brantley said. “We are rolling out a program later this year that will make it easier for those who do not have a bank account or credit card, prefer cash, or do not want to provide this type of information to obtain and use a Peach Pass.”

Tolls have varied from pennies to $7 for the 16-mile trek from Chamblee-Dunwoody Road to Old Peachtree Road. And officials have moved forward on three other projects in other parts of metro Atlanta.

“The I-85 HOT lanes were built as a ‘demonstration project’ but the results of this experiment haven’t been fully examined,” Gist said. “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 the report, the center recommends officials work to maximize carpool access, minimize state funding, provide minimum access for all registered users and use toll revenues to subsidize transit service along the corridor.

Brantley said officials have already begun to address some of those, although he pointed out that decreasing the level of free use to carpoolers with two people in the car is unrealistic because it will clog the lanes.