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Controversial HOT lanes filling with traffic, data shows
Deal thinks of lanes as a means to expand needed infrastructure
Signs show the toll prices for the Peach Pass express lanes on Interstate 85 headed north outside of Atlanta in fall 2012, about a year after the lanes debuted. - photo by Michelle Boaen Jameson

Interstate 85’s high occupancy toll lanes didn’t excite metro Atlanta commuters when they debuted last Oct. 1, but they haven’t sat empty this past year either.

Numbers provided by the State Road and Tollway Authority, which operates the lanes, show that average weekday trips have jumped to 16,916 in September from 7,273 last October. And monthly trips have jumped to 429,964 from 159,799.

“We’re not declaring success or failure, but we are pleased with the way the data is trending,” said Malika Reed Wilkins, the authority’s spokeswoman. “We are continuously monitoring the performance of the lane and will continue to do so.”

The Express Lanes enable drivers who have a “Peach Pass” sticker, or transponder, fixed to their windshield to travel without the congestion of other lanes but for a toll based on the level of traffic snarl.

Fees are waived for those driving motorcycles, alternative-fuel cars with proper license plates and vehicles carrying three or more people.

The lanes are on I-85 southbound and northbound between Old Peachtree Road in Gwinnett County and Chamblee-Tucker Road in DeKalb County. Video cameras keep an electronic eye on violators.

Revenues have increased to $422,932 in August from $105,807 in October, SRTA data shows.

“The Express Lanes are not yet paying for (themselves) and are not expected to for the next 3-4 years,” Wilkins said, adding that revenue is spent on operations and maintenance.

The difference is made up from SRTA’s General Authority fund, Wilkins said.

HOT lanes weren’t embraced by commuters when they opened.

At first, they were sparingly used, creating even more congestion along I-85. Motorists also criticized them, saying they resented a toll system on a road that’s already paid for.

The clamor quickly reached the ears of Gov. Nathan Deal, who moved to lower the toll rates to encourage more drivers to use the lanes.

“We knew, in the beginning, that this was something really different for the region,” Wilkins said. “This is a brand-new concept for the metro area. Previously, we had one toll road (Ga. 400) for almost 20 years, which had a static rate.

“So, we knew that it would take some time for motorists to understand the roadway and get used to it.”

Early on, Deal also vowed to ask the federal government for a waiver allowing two-person vehicles to use the lanes free, but that request was denied.

The project was part of a $110 million U.S. Department of Transportation Congestion Reduction Demonstration grant Georgia received in 2008. The grant also paid for new transit coaches and two new Park & Ride lots, including the one at Hamilton Mill Road near Walmart Supercenter and Interstate 85.

The governor “sees HOT lanes as a means to expand needed infrastructure, particularly at a time with tight budgets, but he thinks they should only apply to new capacity,” his spokesman, Brian Robinson, said in an email last week.

“He inherited the HOT lanes on I-85 — it was a done deal before he came into office — and Gov. Deal would oppose any effort to convert an existing lane into a HOT lane.”

The lanes still are a sore spot with state Sen. Curt Thompson, a Norcross Democrat and early opponent.

“It was not a good use of taxpayer dollars, period,” he said. “The fact that people have stopped complaining about them doesn’t make it a good use.”

Thompson said he believes the lanes helped fuel opposition to the July 31 transportation sales tax referendum, which failed in nine of 12 regions around the state, including the Atlanta region that includes Gwinnett and DeKalb and the Georgia Mountains one that includes Hall County.

“The reality is that it’s not about whether people complain or not,” he said. “It’s about whether or not you have reduced overall drive times along the I-85 corridor.

“And it doesn’t do that. It might reduce drive times in that lane, but if you look at the overall across-the-expressway drive times, at best, it has a marginal less than 30-second effect,” Thompson said.

In January, commuters did get a new southbound entrance to the HOT lane.

The Georgia Department of Transportation created a 4,500-foot access point featuring dashed lines south of the Ga. 120/Boggs Road overpass.

Construction on a permanent access point was to begin later in the spring, but the project has yet to start.

“That work hasn’t been scheduled yet because the materials are ordered but haven’t come in yet,” said Teri Pope, spokeswoman for the DOT’s District 1, which includes Gwinnett and Hall.

She expects, however, that the work will “happen this fall.”