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HOT lanes won't have toll booths

More details emerge on Interstate 85 project

DULUTH - New details about life in the fast lane emerged this week.

A group that wants to transform high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Interstate 85 to toll lanes has requested an additional $18 million from the federal government for the project.

The additional funds, which bring the amount of money requested for the project to $111 million, would pay for technology such as video monitoring of the lane or provide the ability for infrequent drivers on the stretch to call in to pay a toll.

The high-occupancy toll lanes, which received the backing of the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District on Wednesday, would transform 14.4 miles of HOV lanes to paid road under a plan that could be approved by August.

Georgia's submission is among nine semi-finalists for a one-time federal grant intended to reduce traffic jams. Up to five projects are expected to be funded from a $1.1 billion pool.

While no toll booths would be built on the span, which stretches from Interstate 285 to Old Peachtree Road, members of the State Road and Tollway Authority plan to flood drivers with 600,000 transponders that would allow them to drive in and out of the toll lane, deducting money from prepaid accounts.

Drivers without the transponders would have 72 hours to contact the agency to pay their toll, SRTA Director Rosa Rountree said, before fines were issued.

"Everybody's good, nobody's bad," she said. "It's all about choices. We'd rather give you more choices."

Rountree said while the price to enter the HOT lane would fluctuate depending on the time of day and the amount of traffic, it would not be a so-called Lexus lane, available only to those with the disposable income to enter it.

Registered carpoolers would get a special transponder that would allow them to ride in the lane with two or more passengers free of charge. Those who telework, drive during off-peak hours or otherwise reduce the amount that they drive could earn credits that would buy them time in the lane.

The county intends to purchase more than 20 new buses that would make use of the HOT lane and trucks would not be permitted to enter it.

County Transportation Director Brian Allen said transforming the existing HOV lane to one with a toll is a way to get more use out of existing lanes on I-85. If successful, the three-year demonstration project could be expanded to HOV lanes throughout the region.

"It helps in the short term," he said.

All the current entrances and exits in the existing HOV lanes would remain, and area police officers would spend less time trying to catch violators because of increased technology on the road. Pylons would separate the toll lane from the rest of the interstate, which would remain free. 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.

Rountree said this section of highway was selected because it is the most congested stretch in the region, both mornings and evenings.

The HOV lane was intended to encourage true carpoolers, she said, not couples who travel to work together anyway. The new plan will allow more people access to the free-moving lane, she said, and the funds raised from the tolls should fund the project.

Rountree emphasized the fact that entering the toll lane is completely voluntary.

"The times you really need it, it's so congested you can't really use it," she said. "I price my lane to make sure you have a free flow of traffic. ... What it guarantees is reliability."