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Toll lanes proposed for I-85

ATLANTA - Traffic could flow smoother in Gwinnett, but drivers would have to pay for it.

State officials want to convert Interstate 85's high-occupancy vehicle lanes to toll lanes. They are seeking a $74.4 million federal grant to reduce traffic congestion by combining tolling, transit, telecommunications and technology.

"I think the people are looking for some help, for somebody to do something," Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charles Bannister said. "It's the most congested area and it can determine whether or not a toll system will work."

The grant application, which was submitted Monday, would convert 14.3 miles of I-85's HOV lanes to high-occupancy toll lanes, from Interstate 285 to Old Peachtree Road. HOV lanes would become HOT lanes both north and southbound.

Drivers with three or more people in their car could continue to drive in the lanes for free, as could buses and motorcycles. But single drivers or those with only one

passenger would be required to pay to use the lanes on a sliding scale.

The cost of entering a HOT lane would vary based on the time of day and the distance traveled, State Road and Tollway Authority Director Rosa Clausell Rountree said. She expected the average trip to be $2.75.

Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl likened the proposed change to buying a television.

"You can get the basic channels, or you can buy cable and enhance what you've got," he said. "We're trying to enhance mobility."

The span of HOV lanes in question has the worst traffic in Atlanta, officials said. They currently reach their full capacity, becoming clogged themselves. Because there are fewer cars with three passengers than with two - the current minimum for HOV travel - traffic will move faster, allowing quicker flow in the lanes and more capacity overall, even as cars are added.

Converting to HOT lanes would not negatively impact other lanes, Gwinnett Director of Transportation Brian Allen said.

"It's a way to bleed more out of the existing system," he said.

In addition to changing the lanes' accessibility, the proposal would add 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.

Steve Stancil, the GRTA director, said adding the lanes would make the agency's buses more reliable.

Reliability is the key for the system, which Linnenkohl said is likely to come to Atlanta whether or not the grant is approved. The field of submissions will be narrowed to 10 by June 8, and five projects will be awarded the funds from a $1.2 billion pool.

Stancil said he expects the addition of HOT lanes would encourage more people to carpool and ride buses. Still, some drivers would pay to use the lanes if they had to get to an important meeting on time or home to pick their child up from day care.

Many details of the proposal are still being worked out, including how fares would be collected - a breeze card has been suggested, as have cameras to photograph license plates - and whether a physical barrier would be built to separate the lanes. State DOT officials said the HOV violation rate on the corridor is 20 percent.

More police officers would enforce the route to ensure compliance if the change is made and additional HERO units would be available on that stretch so accidents could be quickly cleared, officials said.

"It's about mobility, tackling congestion, reliable travel time," Rountree said. "It's not about the revenue. It's about congestion mitigation, how can we help?"

Officials said they expected "pushback" from drivers who are used to using the lanes for free, but said the measure is not punitive. Rather, it is a way to give drivers more options to get to their destination on time.

Drivers can also get rewards for traveling during non-peak times, telecommuting and carpooling, a program Rountree described like a frequent flyer system.

If it is selected, the state will have to pay $18.6 million for the project, for a total cost of $93 million. That can be repaid over time with tolls.

Other cities, such as Denver, Minneapolis, Houston and San Diego have similar systems in place and officials hope that it can be implemented at the end of 2008, when Ga. Highway 316's new interchange with I-85 is complete. Linnenkohl and Rountree said they were optimistic that Atlanta's designation as the fourth-most congested city would give them a good chance of receiving the grant.

"We're very excited about this, the governor's very excited about this," Linnenkohl said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that the U.S. Department of Transportation sees it our way."