America’s highways got a real workout in 2015. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, drivers last year logged more miles on our roads and highways than in any year in U.S. history—traveling more than 3.1 trillion miles in all. That’s an increase of more than 3 percent over 2014.
But there’s a bigger story here. According to an April 2016 report released by the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, toll-road usage appears to be increasing at an even faster pace.
IBTTA’s report, National Toll Facilities Usage Analysis, reveals that drivers took 5 billion trips on the 31 U.S. toll facilities surveyed in 2015. That’s a 7 percent increase over 2014 — a record-breaking rate of growth that puts tolling usage on track to double in less than 10 years.
Here in Metro Atlanta, the percentage increase in toll-road usage was near the top of the pack, increasing by a whopping 19.6 percent between 2014 and 2015.
Across the nation we are seeing an increase in traffic volumes. Of 31 toll authorities surveyed across the country in IBTTA’s report, 23 logged the largest traffic volume in the history of their toll system. And about a third of these authorities—10 out of 31—recorded double-digit increases in traffic volume in 2015.
It’s clear from these numbers that as Americans drive more miles on our roads, bridges and tunnels, they also are choosing to ramp up their use of the nation’s 6,000 miles of tolled highways—at an increasingly high rate.
And the reason for this trend is also clear: Drivers—in Metro Atlanta and nationwide—are choosing toll roads because of the ease of use provided by all-electronic payment systems and the opportunity to avoid the higher levels of congestion in the non-tolled lanes. Simply put, drivers are choosing toll roads where they allow drivers to keep moving on safer, more reliable and well-maintained roadways.
Ease, safety and speed have made toll roads a part of America’s transportation equation throughout its history. At end of the 1920s, for example, it was tolling that came to the rescue.
By then, more than half of American families owned automobiles, many of them plying the 19th Century roads of densely populated areas of the nation’s Northeast. As is the case now, tolls were used then to pay for some or all of the construction of badly needed roads, highways, bridges and tunnels. Here in Georgia, we are successfully using this approach to construct 30 centerline miles of new roadway in the Northwest Corridor of I-75 in Cobb and Cherokee counties.
Tolled facilities that opened in the Northeast in the 1920s include landmarks that still carry traffic today—New York City’s Holland Tunnel, which transformed traffic flow in and out of the city, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the nation’s first superhighway.
Toll roads now have expanded far beyond that Northeast corridor. In fact, IBTTA found that the top 10 toll authorities with the largest usage increases in 2015 surprisingly were not in the Northeast, but in the West and South. The I-85 Express Lanes here in Metro Atlanta, for example, came in number four on the list of the top 10. This ever-increasing demand is one of the reasons the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) recently announced that construction of the I-85 Express Lanes extension will begin this fall – adding 10 additional centerline miles of new capacity to the northern end of the existing express lanes.
These findings drive home the fact that growing numbers of drivers and policymakers across the country are realizing the benefits of tolled facilities especially in congested urban areas like Atlanta. Currently, 35 states have leveraged the power of tolling as a proven and effective option to meet their infrastructure needs. In those states, tolls help ensure roadways and bridges remain open, safe and reliable. Here in Georgia, Governor Deal, GDOT and the Tollway Authority announced plans to address Metro Atlanta congestion through a series of innovative mobility investments that include construction of 55 centerline miles of new tolled express lanes starting within the next 10 years. These tolled express lane projects, in conjunction with the other transportation projects on the 11 project list, will create additional capacity; improve the movement of freight; provide operational improvements and efficiencies; enhance safety and decrease travel times.
While some individuals may be driving less, the latest USDOT traffic volume numbers and IBTTA statistics provide us with real data and facts. Travel miles—and the traffic it brings—are on the rise in many parts of the Nation. The Atlanta Regional Commission forecasts the 20-county Atlanta region’s population will grow by 2.5 million additional residents by 2040 bringing more drivers and potentially more traffic with them. And as traffic increases and our roadways throughout the country become more congested, tolling will continue to serve as part of the solution to keep America moving—in Georgia and across the nation.