In the fast lane
Proposed toll lanes in Georgia

LAWRENCEVILLE - When Sarah Armstrong has a meeting downtown, the Denver resident doesn't mind paying an extra dollar or three to shave some time off her commute.

"I would rather pay money than sit there for 15 minutes if I don't have to," she said.

In her city and others, drivers sick of sitting in traffic every morning or who need to get home in time for a child's soccer game at night can choose to pay anywhere from 25 cents to $9.50 to get into a faster-moving lane.

Next week, Atlantans will learn if their roads will be similarly transformed.

Officials hope to bring high-occupancy toll or HOT lanes, as they are known, to a 28.5-mile stretch of Interstates 85 and 985 in Gwinnett County.

The state has applied for a one-time federal grant that could fund as many as five projects across the nation from a $1.1 billion pool. Eight other submissions from seven other states are also being considered for funds.

Exceeding expectations

Armstrong, a business development manager for a construction company, has lived in Denver all her life.

She said she only uses the city's lanes once or twice a month when she has to differ from her regular commute. But across the city, people seem to have embraced the lanes that levy a toll if drivers choose to use them.

When the seven-mile stretch of Interstate 25, to the north of Denver, first opened a year and two months ago, Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Stacey Stegman said she had modest expectations for its use. She predicted that just 500 people would pay the $5.25 fee to use the lane during its peak hour.

Instead, 1,400 people are using the lanes at the peak time, far out-pacing the department's predictions.

"It's incredible," Stegman said. "The acceptance grows every day. People love it; they've come to really rely on it."

In Gwinnett, an average of 11,500 drivers used the county's southbound high-occupancy vehicle lanes daily in 2006. That number climbs to 12,800 daily northbound.

Lisa Thompson, a spokeswoman for the State Road and Tollway Authority, said she did not want to guess how many drivers would enter the HOT lanes during peak hours, but that the state expects those numbers to rise once they are converted for tolls.

Some say they would pay

In other states, carpool lanes were converted for tolls after they appeared to be underused. However, Gwinnett's span of HOV lanes have the worst traffic in metro Atlanta during rush hours, reaching their full capacity and becoming clogged themselves.

Because the HOT lanes will require carpoolers to have three people in their cars, that should ease congestion in the lanes, allowing the speed to rise. Then, increasing the toll should control how many people enter the lane in morning and afternoon rushes, keeping the speed high.

To Sherry Williams, a Lawrenceville resident, that sounds like a good idea. She travels downtown every week for work and thinks the lanes would come in handy to help her get to her business in Atlantic Station.

"I probably would use it to avoid all the heavy traffic," she said. "If they keep it under $5, I think so, if I was trying to get there at a certain time."

Kathy Apolinaro and her daughter Sydney, 16, said they would be likely to pay if they needed to get to the airport or wanted to go downtown from their home in Lawrenceville for fireworks or other events.

"Traffic here is a nightmare," Apolinaro said. "It's just a nightmare."

But others don't like the idea of paying money for a stretch of road that they can ride in now for no cost. Lawrenceville resident Linda Martinez said travelers should plan to get to the airport early enough that a little traffic jam shouldn't make a difference. Renee Boone said she's worried that more signs will make the road more dangerous and that letting drivers who are in a hurry into the HOV lane could cause more accidents.

Dorothy Freeman, a Duluth resident, said she's used to a lot of cars on the road. Paying to get into the lane doesn't seem cost efficient for her.

"I'm not for it," she said. "I'm from New York. Traffic is traffic. If I have to sit for 45 minutes, that's what I have to do."

How tolls are collected

Across the country, though, commuters seem to have embraced the lanes. Groups that manage the toll lanes have lauded them for the extra funds they bring in, their impact on congestion and their ease of use.

In Minnesota, Kevin Gutknecht said, the express lanes to and from Minneapolis stay at or above 50 miles an hour while speeds in the regular lanes have also been higher since the toll lanes opened.

"It's an unanticipated benefit," he said. "Congestion in the regular lanes decreased."

Gutknecht, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said he thinks the state's HOT lanes have been successful since they opened in May 2005. On any given day, between 25 and 30 percent of the 11,000 owners of electronic transponders use the lanes, he said.

Minneapolis' lanes are divided into two sections. For three miles, there are two barrier-separated reversible lanes that go into the city during the morning rush and head out of it in the afternoon. The rest look like traditional HOV lanes, divided from the rest of the highway by a double white line.

To charge customers, antennae mounted on one side of bridges interact with electronic transponders in drivers' windshields, charging them a rate that varies depending on the time of day. The transponders are like Cruise Cards that can be used on Ga. Highway 400 or the E-ZPass system in the Northeast.

On the other side of the bridge, a light flashes to let watching officers know that the driver is using the lane legally.

Because carpoolers are allowed to use the lane without paying, if no light flashes, police officers first look to see if there is a passenger in the car. If there isn't, drivers get pulled over and receive a $142 ticket. The same fine applies for illegally crossing the double-line barrier.

As of July, about 950 citations had been written for either of those transgressions since the lanes first opened, Gutknecht said. An additional 785 warnings were given.

Differences in Georgia

Minnesota's lanes only interact with transponders every 30 minutes or so, so drivers can move in and out of the lanes but just be charged once. Georgia's plan would track drivers much more extensively.

Thompson, with Georgia's State Road and Tollway Authority, said the department is working to get a patent on some "revolutionary technology" that would track cars on the highway every quarter-mile or so.

"It would be different than anything else in the country," Thompson said.

Arms that reach across the entire length of the highway would be necessary, she said, because drivers would still be able to exit Gwinnett's HOT lanes at all the places they can now exit the HOV system. Like Minneapolis, Georgia's lanes would be separated from regular-use lanes just by a double white line. Officials here say there is no room for a barrier on I-85.

Tracking drivers across all lanes would also reward those who choose not to drive alone during peak traffic times with points that they could redeem for free trips in the HOT lane. The commuter credits would be available to teleworkers, carpoolers and other commuters who take public transportation.

Officials described the program like a frequent flyer system for drivers.

The $10 solar- or battery-powered transponders used to charge drivers and manage their points would be the same ones currently used on Ga. Highway 400. Drivers would be able to put sleeves over them if they drove in a carpool so they would not be charged for a trip, she said.

Additionally, drivers would not be required to be carpoolers or have transponders before they drove in the lane. Out-of-towners, drivers headed to the airport for a once-a-year trip or others in a rush would have their license plates photographed if a transponder wasn't detected. Bills would be sent to them for the per-mile use of the lane.

Where the money goes

In other states, the journey is billed per segment, as in Minneapolis, or with one flat fee, as in Salt Lake City.

That city charges users a flat $50 a month to use a 38-mile stretch of Interstate 15. About 1,400 users put a new sticker of a different color on their car each month, signifying they can use the lanes.

Nile Easton, a Utah Department of Transportation spokesman, said the state intends to upgrade its system to an electronic one over the coming years.

The Salt Lake City roads were underutilized as HOV lanes, Easton said, but when the HOT system first opened a year ago, there were a number of user complaints from drivers who thought carpoolers were being punished.

"There was a lot of skepticism from people who thought we took a good, environmentally friendly concept and turned it into a capitalistic system," Easton said. "There was a fear that it would hurt carpoolers."

But as the number of users has increased from 600 in the first month, many of those fears have fallen by the wayside.

"Complaints have gone way down," Easton said. "Users really love it."

The lanes are popular in California, too, where Orange County and San Diego have had them for more than a decade.

Kirk Avila, the general manager for Orange County's 91 Express Lanes system, said about 40,000 people use them each day. In the past fiscal year, the enterprise has collected $14.5 million on a 10-mile section of road.

Avila said money collected from the tolls goes to pay the road's operating expenses and to repay debt incurred in the project. By law, any extra cash must be used to improve the 91 corridor, whether it's the toll portion or an additional seven miles that are free. So far, Avila said, $10 million has been spent to improve that road.

In Georgia, toll money will go to fund the lanes' operation and to repay a 20 percent match required for the grant. Thompson, the state's tollways spokeswoman, said that would tie up money for years to come.

On Ga. Highway 400, tolls collected there can be used for projects anywhere on that road or on the streets that lead to it. Thompson said whether that will be the case for any extra revenue from the I-85 project has yet to be determined.

On average, a trip on I-85's HOT lanes is expected to cost $2.75, Thompson said. The high and low prices are still unknown.

Like many systems, Gwinnett would use what is called a dynamic pricing system - a toll that increases as congestion increases and decreases as traffic thins. Tolls would be updated every five or six minutes.

Gutknecht, in Minnesota, said the rate changes every three minutes as detectors in the pavement report how quickly cars are moving. In Denver, buses are equipped with detectors that report their speed, determining the fee.

Orange County has a toll schedule that is set ahead of time. Tolls top out at $9.50 for the entire span during the Friday afternoon rush hour, but Avila said the average cost to use the lanes is under $3. The lowest fee is $1.20.

Not just for single drivers

Here, as in Denver, buses are an integral part of the HOT lane plan.

Stegman, in Colorado, said the cost to drive in the toll lane will never be less than bus fare to keep the lanes from competing with mass transit.

Often, lanes are moving so well that buses are clocked going well above the speed limit - sometimes more than 80 miles an hour, she said.

In San Diego, Derek Toups, the associate regional planner with the San Diego Association of Governments, said more buses are a key strategy for expansion of the Interstate 15 managed lane system.

By 2012, the eight-mile system will be 20 miles long with five bus-rapid transit stations that will mean even faster travel on buses, Toups said. Profits from the managed lanes will go to fund improved mass transit options on that corridor.

Gwinnett's proposal includes the addition of two new park and ride lots in the county - one on Hamilton Mill Road and the other on Cedars Road, near Ga. Highway 316.

Each would have room for about 500 cars, and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority would purchase 40 new Xpress buses to operate in Gwinnett.

Controlling speed on the lane would make the buses more reliable, officials said.

Commuter concerns

Despite officials' insistence that the toll lanes are now popular with drivers, they said drivers in each city were sometimes slow to accept the changes.

Peter Larson, a San Diego real estate agent, said he has used the lanes when traveling as a passenger in someone else's car, but that they don't seem useful for his commute.

"They never seem to get off where I want to get off," he said. "I pass by six or eight exits I want to take and I end up undershooting or overshooting where I want to go."

Larson said he doesn't know where to buy a transponder, and hasn't cared enough to look into it, but that he might consider using the lanes if more exits are added or if they are expanded to more roads that he uses.

Other detractors are more organized. In Colorado, Stegman said, carpoolers filed a lawsuit challenging the way the tolls were determined - drivers were required to enter separate lanes if they were carpoolers or toll drivers at the point where transponders were charged.

The state lost that suit and will now be sending violations to drivers without transponders whose license plates were captured by cameras. Drivers who were carpooling can get a signed affidavit saying as much and the fines will be dismissed.

Impact on other lanes

If the $308-million demonstration project is approved in Gwinnett, leaders here intend to spend a good deal of time and money educating drivers about the lanes.

They will flood the area with transponders, officials said, in the hopes of converting many users during the project's three-year trial period. Thompson said she expects to double the $700,000 education and advertising budget she uses on Ga. Highway 400 to inform people about the changes on I-85.

If the project succeeds, the HOT lane system could be put in place wherever there are HOV lanes in the metro area.

Minnesota's Gutknecht said the system adds capacity much more quickly and for less cost than new roads could be added. Stegman, in Colorado, said the option is a good solution when adding a lane to the interstate just isn't an option.

"It doesn't have the cost, the major impact, of widening the highway," she said. "Each of these facilities are different. It's very easy to lump tolling into one kind of category, but the roads serve a different purpose."