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HOT plan gets cold shoulder
Feds turn down toll lanes on I-85

LAWRENCEVILLE - A plan to put toll lanes on Interstate 85 broke down this week.

The U.S. Department of Transportation chose not to fund a proposal that would have put more than 28 miles of optional toll lanes from Interstate 285 to north of Interstate 985.

"We were very excited about the proposal," said Bert Brantley, spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue. "Certainly, we expected to get a share of it. It's disappointing."

Five cities were funded from a $1.1 billion pool, but the region's bid to convert existing high-occupancy vehicle lanes to high-occupancy toll lanes was not among them.

The toll lanes would have charged drivers who chose to enter them a variable price depending on congestion and the time of day. It also would have included credits for commuters and the addition of more buses and park-and-ride lots.

Brantley called it a "bold and aggressive" proposal. While there are no immediate plans to move forward with the HOT lanes, as they are known, on I-85, he said the project would not sit on a shelf. Other similar tolling proposals are being considered for Interstates 75 and 20 and Ga. Highway 400, he said.

Brian Allen, Gwinnett's transportation director, said the application wasn't a wasted effort. He said there is a possibility that other funds will be offered for similar projects and that the state's experience in applying for the Urban Partnership grant would give them important knowledge.

Allen said he did not know why the plan, which was one of nine finalists, was rejected.

"Maybe it wasn't big enough, maybe it wasn't grand enough," he said. "It's just one way of dealing with the congestion issue. No one ever said that it was going to solve the problem by itself."

Allen and others lauded the proposal as a way to bleed more use out of existing roads. They said the project would reduce congestion in less time than it would take to add capacity to the highways.

The state asked for $308 million for the demonstration project, which would have lasted three years and incorporated tolling, technology, telecommunication and transit components.

Brantley said the region will be on the lookout for similar funds that may be provided next year or could become available if one of the five cities receiving the grants - New York, Miami, Minneapolis, Seattle and San Francisco - was unable to complete their project.

"If one of theirs did not materialize as planned, certainly we would be first in line," he said.

Gwinnett's cooperation with the doomed HOT lane project and the county's "phenomenal support" bodes well for future collaborations, Brantley said.

He said the fact that Gwinnett did not receive the funds shows how competitive the process was. But he said the state will continue to look at ways to ease congestion.

A reworking of I-85's interchange with Ga. Highway 316 is due to be completed at the end of 2008, and a plan to add lanes to I-85 north of that interchange should help ease traffic on the road, he said.

"Sometimes, it just doesn't happen," Brantley said. "I don't want to say this was our only shot. There are other options to go after, but this was a fantastic opportunity."

SideBar: At a glance

The following five cities received money from the U.S. Department of Transportation to help fight congestion:

City/Amount (in millions)

New York/$354.5

Miami/$62.9

Minneapolis area/$133.3

Seattle area/$138.7

San Francisco/$158.7