HOT or Not

When the transportation agencies talk about the toll lanes on I-85, they talk about “managed lanes.” The public calls them “HOT lanes,” short for high occupancy toll lanes. Metro Atlantans may soon learn that this difference is more than semantics.

Buried deep in the recent proposed amendments to the region’s Transportation Improvement Program is the following note about the managed lane project proposed for I-75 South:

Recode in model from HOT 3 to ETL and relocate interchange from Mt. Carmel Road to just south of Jonesboro Road.

The Northwest Corridor project on I-75/575 saw the same shift, evolving from a HOT3 project to an ETL project.

Cutting through the acronyms and transportation agency-speak, the difference is whether carpools receive a free pass.  Under as words “high occupancy “suggest,  HOT lanes allow certain carpools to drive for free. In the case of HOT3, this would be a carpool with three or more occupants.  ETL is a fancy way of saying everyone pays the toll (except for public transit vehicles, law enforcement, etc…).  Managed lanes is the umbrella term for any lane with an access restriction, so it covers both ETL and HOT lanes.

This change is a complete reversal from last year, when Georgia unsuccessfully petitioned U.S. DOT to waive the HOT3 requirement for the I-85 project and allow HOT2 carpools. The State’s new preference for ETL lanes coincides with its need for toll revenue; US DOT funded the I-85 project so maximizing toll revenue was less of a concern but with the State bankrolling the Northwest Corridor and I-75 South projects, tolling carpools starts to look more appealing.

GDOT quantified the financial difference between ETL and HOT3 in a”Tolling Policy Evaluation Memo“on the Northwest Corridor project:

According to GDOT’s Northwest Corridor Managed Lanes Traffic and Revenue Forecasting Report from June 2010, 50-year accumulated gross revenues for a reversible, HOT3+ scenario, with trucks prohibited from the managed lanes, are projected to be $2.84B in 2008 dollars. An ETL scenario will generate over $3.49B, a 23% increase over the HOT3+ alternative.

Addressing other policy considerations, such as the cost of operation, ease of enforcement, and the impact on carpooling, the Memo reached the bottom line conclusion:

Overall, ETL is easier and less costly to operate and enforce, less costly to implement, generates higher revenues, and carries less revenue risk than HOT3+. A HOT3+ policy accommodates a segment of the HOV population, and does more to encourage HOY formation than does ETL, but this policy introduces an increased burden in accurately accounting for these free vehicles and requires additional processing costs for transactions that generate no revenue.

This choice between ETL and HOT3 highlights a larger decision that Georgia must make with respect to toll lanes: is the overriding goal to maximize their transportation performance or their financial revenue?  The current shift toward ETL  suggests that the balance is tipping in favor of the latter.


Room to Grow

The Atlanta Business Chronicle reports that MARTA is studying a number of stations to identify opportunities for leasing MARTA property for transit oriented development. (Article behind pay wall here).  Building out this real estate would be a win-win, both providing a new revenue stream for the agency and likely increasing ridership.   A quick look at several of these stations shows sizable parcels ripe for conversion from lightly used parking lots to vibrant TOD. (Parking lots shaded in blue).



  King Memorial

 Oakland City

Peak Car

The Economist has a piece on driving trends in first world countries and what it tells about the future prospects for the automobile.  Looking at many of the trends discussed here before – declining total distance driven, declining distance per driver, fewer total trips, and fewer drivers licenses issued – the article wonders whether driving has reached a saturation point. Or, in other words, whether we’ve reached “peak car.”

Among the various trends, the article notes that transportation trips are being supplanted by activities online:

A global survey of teen attitudes by TNS, a consultancy, found that young people increasingly view cars as appliances not aspirations, and say that social media give them the access to their world that would once have been associated with cars. KCR, a research firm, has found that in America far more 18- to 34-year-olds than any other age group say socialising online is a substitute for some car trips.

It also highlights another contributing factor:  geographic and roadway capacity limitations prevent driving from increasing indefinitely.

 [A]s suburbs grow and congestion increases most cities eventually hit a “sprawl wall” of too-long commutes beyond which they will not spread far. After that, it appears, a significant number of people start to move back towards the city centre. In America, where over 50% of the population lives in suburbs, more than half the nation’s 51 largest cities are seeing more growth in the core than outside it, according to William Frey at the Brookings Institution.

Atlanta is a prime example of this phenomenon and may have reached this “sprawl wall” already.  With suburban driving distances prohibitively long and transportation funds insufficient to expand all of our congested roads, auto-focused outward growth cannot continue unabated.  Reaching this inversion point, future growth will be increasingly directed inward rather than outward and indicators of this increasing inward growth would be a decrease in driving distance, driving trips, and overall reliance on the automobile as our sole mode of transportation.

In other words, all of the trends described in the article.

Smart Growth Data, From Soup to Nuts

Placemakers blog has compiled an encyclopedic recitation of the data demonstrating the “Benefits of Placemaking. ”  They have listed and categorized nearly three dozen different facts (with citations) showing why building smart growth communities is better for real estate values, the finances of local government, public health, and the environment.

A few choice selections, for your enjoyment:

  • An average family in an auto-dependent community drives 24,000 miles per year, while a family in a walkable community of 16 dwelling units per acre and compact mixed use drives 9,000 miles per year. (Sustainable Urbanism, 2007)
  • Every 1% rise in the urban sprawl index increases the risk of obesity by 0.5%. (Boston University School of Public Health)
  • A 10-point increase in Walk Score increases commercial property values by 5% to 8%. (University of Arizona & Indiana University, 2010)
  • People living in walkable neighborhoods trust neighbors more, participate in community projects, and volunteer more than in non-walkable areas. (University of New Hampshire, 2010)
  • In 1995, people age 21 to 30 drove 21% of all miles driven in the U.S.; in 2009 it was 14%, despite consistent growth of the age group. Living car-free in walkable areas fits younger lifestyles. (Advertising Age, 2010)





Increased Scrutiny for TIGER

The US Inspector General has released an audit report examining the TIGER discretionary grant program. Initially funded to the tune of $1.5 billion under the Stimulus Act, the TIGER program has grown to $3.1 billion through subsequent appropriations.  The audit considers the effectiveness of the TIGER program’s management and oversight, including the performance measures for determining economic and transportation-related impacts.

The audit offers seven recommendations for better managing TIGER grants:

  1. Establish and implement a formal process to ensure that all grant agreements include clear schedules, scopes, milestones, and outcome-based performance measures that will allow a project’s progress towards the long-term goals of the program to be assessed;
  2. Establish and implement a systematic process for documenting significant management decisions involving the program and individual TIGER projects;
  3. Update risk assessments to include an evaluation of the overseeing agency’s capabilities to manage the TIGER program;
  4. Establish a methodology to identify program outcomes from grantee performance data for each TIGER project;
  5. Establish a comprehensive methodology to aggregate performance measures to assess the overall impact of the TIGER program;
  6. Require the overseeing agency to fully implement their grant management policies;
  7. Clarify TIGER program guidance and grant agreements to indicate under what circumstances and by what manner overseeing agencies and grantees must collaborate on multimodal projects.

Atlanta’s Downtown streetcar received a $47 million grant in the second round of TIGER funding, the largest single grant of that funding cycle. Although the Atlanta project was not one of the fourteen projects specfically reviewed as part of the IG audit, the project sponsors would be well-served to consider these recommendations.  As federal grant programs become increasingly competitive, ensuring that Atlanta’s overseeing agencies remain highly regarded is necessary to ensure that the region can compete for discretionary federal funding.

Management of the Downtown Streetcar also has significant local implications.  Atlanta has not expanded its rail transit network in over a decade and the project will be the region’s first experience with the light rail / streetcar mode.  If the project is not delivered on time, on budget, or fails to perform as promised, critics will point to it as an indictment of all light rail. Alternatively, successful delivery and operation of the project can provide a model for expanding Atlanta’s transportation options. In either case, management of the Downtown Streetcar is likely to set a precedent, so MARTA, the City of Atlanta, and Central Atlanta Progress would be well served to carefully heed these recommendations.


Driving for Distance and Safety

The New York Times has infographic charting the historical relationship between driver safety and the distance we drive.  As a general proposition, driving more increases one’s risk of being injured in a vehicle.  But the risk of injury per mile has changed over time, as has the amount we drive. As a result, the chance of being injured in a car has ebbed and flowed over time.

The historical trend on vehicle safety is basically linear; innovations like seat belts, air bags, and better engineered cars have improved the safety of the actual vehicles.  The other variable, the amount we drive, has been more volatile over time.  Although the general trend is toward more driving, that trend has been complicated by gas prices, the economy, changing housing patterns, and other consumer preferences.  The amount we drive has actually been in decline over the past several years.

The idea of charting these two variables together yields a fascinating demonstration of the risk we bear as a function of our driving.