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I-85 HOT Lanes: Your Pocketbook or Your Watch?

Opinion: DOT "Peach Pass" may really be a "Diamond lane" targeting carpoolers.

In case you missed it, the current to what the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) calls High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.

The conversion is scheduled to complete during the summer of 2011. After that time, single-rider cars and two-person vehicles can ride in the lane if they pay a variable toll based on the time of day and amount of traffic. The GDOT states they are doing this to manage the lanes more efficiently and to guarantee consistent trip times for commuters.

The toll will vary from 10 to 90 cents a mile, based on the traffic congestion. By charging a higher price during traffic peaks, officials hope to guarantee a 45 mph trip. For area residents, traveling the 14 miles from Old Peachtree to I-285, the price range for a one-way trip down the lane would cost between $1.40 and $12.60. After lane conversion, riders are required to use a "Peach Pass" transponder, which records when a car enters and exits the lanes and will calculate the fee. The Peach Pass campaign is scheduled to launch in March.

I use the current HOV lanes 3-4 times a week with couple of co-workers for our work commute to Decatur. One of my co-workers, Chrissy Magnesi, is a Suwanee resident. She likes the current HOV lane because it allows her to put her daughter on the bus at 7:50 and still make it to work in Decatur around 8:40.

But we don't always have three riders because of afternoon commitments. When the lanes convert to a toll lane we'll only use the lane when all three of us can make it on the same day, because none of us is in favor of paying a fee to ride to work. That defeats one of the main benefits of riding together, which is the cost savings in gas. 

I can tell you that traffic flow on I-85 was dramatically improved when the HOV lanes were opened and the I-85/316 interchange work was finished. Everyone using the road has benefited from the increased traffic flow, especially those who go out of their way to carpool. 

So why is the GDOT changing the current setup? When the existing HOV lanes were created, the stance of the GDOT was that it was the "green" alternative. Use the HOV to reduce carbon emissions and you could also reduce your trip time. That makes sense to me. Carpoolers and public bus transportation have enjoyed those benefits ever since.

Apparently though it's working so well, that the GDOT now feels they need to collect a toll from two-person carpools as well as give single riders the opportunity to buy a pass. I guess taking money from single riders is more important than reducing their carbon footprint. The new justification is to guarantee consistent trip times.

Consider these points:

  • Approximately $12.60 to ride to the perimeter highway from Old Peachtree Road is more than the cost of gas to get there. Financially, it more than doubles the cost of a one-way commute during peak hours of the day. That's a luxury that most cost-conscious commuters will avoid.
  • Is this toll really an additional tax on Gwinnett County residents? As a group, we are the primary users of the I-85 corridor. Why are we creating additional taxes on transportation when taxpayer dollars have already been used to build the roads?
  • Will the project increase capacity of the road at peak times? The amount of pavement is not changing. This change will benefit those willing to pay a toll and create more traffic for those that don't. Think about it. If the goal is to guarantee 45 mph rides, then that means the other lanes must absorb those not willing to pay the toll. So the benefit is for a select few, not the greater populace.
  • Will it shorten ? In my mind, yes. Yet from my experience in using the HOV lane 3-4 times a week we already have this. The only point that consistently slows down today is the 316 merge during the morning and around the perimeter in the afternoon.
  • Will it encourage more people to take the bus and reduce traffic on the freeway? The toll really targets the two-person carpools today. Will they avoid the higher priced toll to use public transportation? Maybe, but remember . It's too bad that people willing to adjust their schedules to make a two-person carpool may soon be forced to pay extra for a benefit that was built to serve them.
  • Typically tolls are added to pay for a road. Haven't the taxpayers already funded I-85? What does the funding for I-85 look like after the toll is implemented? 

It's easy to see why so many Gwinnett residents are not happy with this deal. It appears government is mingling with something that already works well in order to find another revenue stream.

Maybe they need to spend a month riding the HOV lanes to see that they already work and benefit commuters. I will admit that public information sessions on this topic were not well attended, but according to Chrissy, my carpool partner, "They were going to pass the proposal no matter who objected to it."

She did attend the meetings and gave negative input on the proposal.  Some have called it the "Lexus lane," while I prefer to call the "diamond lane" because of the diamond symbol painted in the lane. Soon, it'll cost a diamond for your annual commute. You can pay in tolls or with your time.

For more information on this topic please visit the Georgia state DOT Information Center at http://www.dot.state.ga.us/informationcenter/activeprojects/interstates/I85hotlanes/pages/default.aspx

R++ One of the Famous Dacula Crew September 29, 2011 at 08:52 PM
The line crossers will be the real revenue here - 75.00 minimum plus. Yes, the Lexuses can afford those fees too I'm sure.
Frank Jones October 04, 2011 at 10:37 PM
I hope the no one uses the lanes and the program fails. Maybe then, the legislature will get serious about true short-term and long-term traffic planning. The state is about to enter into another crazy "solution" with the proposed I-75/I-575 project. A private project that is supposed to cost $1 billion to be funded $300 million by Georgia and $100-200 million by the feds. And in doing so, traffic flow won't be improved, the state's hands will be tied for 50 to 60 years and our roadways won't be able to handle another 2+ million people.
Bob Williams October 04, 2011 at 11:50 PM
@FrankJones. Here are a few examples of toll roads that went bust. The I-85 lanes may be headed in this direction if only mass transit and 3+ people car pools are in the lane. http://www.smartmoney.com/invest/bonds/toll-road-less-traveled-driven-to-bankruptcy/ http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/mar/23/south-bay-expressway-builders-file-chapter-11/
Robert Cooper November 13, 2011 at 10:37 PM
I've driven approximately 120 miles observing the HOT traffic, at various times of day, including rush hour, driving the full length of it each time. I've observed during those 120 miles approximately 5-10 total vehicles. Total time was 2.4 hours. Factoring for a 24 hour period = 50-100 cars/day. GDOT estimates that customers will pay less than $5 per trip on average. Even at $5 that's only $500 per day. Since the HOT portion of the $182 Mil project is ONLY $60 Mil, then it should take ONLY 120,000 days, or 329 years to break even on the initial cost. Of course that totally ignores the ongoing costs, but it's enough information to see that this is the most idiotic project ever conceived. Or at least one of them. I have yet to find anything related to a cost-benefit analysis to this project. All the GDOT info is just marketing hype. I have a novel idea, and it's FREE! Open up the lane and let everyone drive in it. Ok, it's not quite free because you either have to take down the current signage, or spray paint over them.
Scott November 14, 2011 at 03:59 PM
Should have seen it this morning about 7:40. There were cars slowly moving in it all the way from before 316 to beyond JCB. For the trip cost of $2.50 from top to bottom that's a lot of revenue because I'm sure there aren't many 3+ carpools hitting on a regular basis. What's sad is as they adjusted the toll after the first few days of uproar it fell to 50 cents from 316 to Indian Trail. Now that's 60-65 cents daily (about 8am). That's a 30% rate increase from the low it adjusted to. Yet people are paying to drive it on a daily basis. The volume in the HOT lanes has grown since it opened. Sadly, so has the number of people I see jumping over the solid lines. I just hope they're getting hit with fines rather than getting away with it. The most fun is when company vehicles do it. Time to call the company and complain about bad drivers in company vehicles!

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