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Federal money for toll lanes?

Proposal takes a step forward

LAWRENCEVILLE - A plan to convert one of Interstate 85's lanes to a voluntary toll lane shifted into high gear Thursday.

The proposal, which would change high occupancy vehicle lanes to high occupancy toll lanes from Interstate 285 to Old Peachtree Road, was named a semi-finalist for a federal grant that would fund the project.

Gwinnett County Chairman Charles Bannister said he is anxiously awaiting the grant's next cut.

"The wave of the future is managed roads, toll roads," he said. "We're hoping we get the opportunity to test the pilot project."

Georgia's lone submission joins eight others from seven states, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Spokesman Brian Turmail said he expected up to five proposals to be funded in early August from a $1.1 billion pool.

Gwinnett Transportation Director Brian Allen said the county would do whatever it had to do to ensure the state's project made the final list.

"We're certainly excited about making the first cut, but we're not home yet," he said. "It's just the first hurdle. We can't get to the final hurdle if we don't pass the first one."

In addition to calling for HOT lanes to replace HOV lanes on the 14.3-mile stretch of highway, Georgia's plan also includes the addition of more buses and the creation of a commuter credit program that would award drivers who carpooled or drove during off-peak hours.

The cost of a trip in the HOT lanes would vary depending on the time of day and the amount of traffic but is expected to average $2.75. It would remain free for motorcycles and carpools with three or more people.

Brett Harrell, a member of the governor's Congestion Mitigation Task Force and director of the Evermore Community Improvement District, said he thinks the plan would go a long way toward decreasing congestion on I-85. By charging a varying toll, HOT lanes keep traffic in that lane moving and guarantee a travel time for drivers who are willing to pay. Many times, he said, the HOV lanes are underutilized and a single driver has no option to enter them.

"If you're not moving, how much worse can it get? I see this as freeing those (regular) lanes, rather than putting more traffic into them," Harrell said. "Not only do I benefit myself, but you've taken a car out of the congested lane beside it."

If accepted, the HOT lanes would be in place in three years. Mary Peters, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, said in a news release that the funds were designed to support plans that cut traffic in the short term.

In all, the nine cities chosen as semi-finalists handle about 20 percent of all vehicle travel in the country and are responsible for a third of all highway congestion in the 85 biggest cities in the U.S., Turmail said. The other cities being considered for the program are Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Miami, New York City, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.

Turmail said all of the plans include toll and transit options. New York's would require a flat fee of drivers who drive into Manhattan, he said, while others are similar to Atlanta's.

Peters was in Atlanta in May, and has been to Denver and New York in the past several days, Turmail said. He expected that she would have "intense conversations" in person and over the phone with representatives from the selected cities while making the final funding decision.

Lisa Thompson, a spokeswoman with the State Road and Tollway Authority, said a consortium of groups that applied for the grant are "really excited" to have made the cut.

"It's all going to come down to how strong the support is, the community support," she said. "They want to know that whoever they give the money to is 110 percent committed."

Allen, of Gwinnett's DOT, said he is confident that Atlanta can make a good case for its congestion woes and said the managed-lane plan is worthwhile for the region in the future, even if it is not funded by the federal government. He said a project now under way to restructure I-85's interchange with Ga. Highway 316 will show that the region is serious about making changes to the current system.

Joe Allen, whose Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District spans part of the stretch of highway included in the proposal, said the plan's advancement is very good news.

While the $93 million initiative is just part of the needed solution to congestion trouble, he said, the fact that it has momentum and looks outside the box could make a big difference for easing traffic concerns.

"Anything we can do that's innovative, that's forward-thinking, we need to embrace," he said. "We've got to start looking at doing things differently that we have been doing for 20 or 30 years."