High occupancy toll lanes: Shoppers comment on lanes

LAWRENCEVILLE - Ellen Davies paused while shopping at Discover Mills mall on Saturday to learn about a proposal to create a toll lane on Interstate 85.

After four public hearings with sparse attendance, the transportation displays at the mall caught the attention of Gwinnett residents who could choose to pay the toll, if officials convert the high occupancy vehicle lanes of the interstate as proposed.

"That's wonderful if you are going into the city," Davies said about the proposal, which officials hope will create a commute time people can count on by managing the traffic with higher tolls during higher traffic time.

The concept is to provide a toll option to get people home faster, while allowing other drivers the free option to wait in traffic. Critics say the "Lexus lanes" approach only helps the wealthy, but transportation officials wanted the community's opinion, as a $140 million federal grant would pay for the conversion of the 14-miles of HOV lanes from Old Peachtree Road to I-285.

Davies said the proposal could encourage further carpooling, since it would allow cars with three or more people inside to pass through the lane without a toll. Currently, the HOV is available to drivers with at least one passenger.

But she said the project will do little to help people like her, since she commutes locally and has trouble crossing the two-lane bridges over the Chattachoochee.

"What about the rest of us?" she said. "I would like to see this on (Ga. Highway) 120."

Lawrenceville couple Scott and Cyndi Morris went to the mall Saturday not to shop, but to learn about the proposal.

Scott Morris said he was skeptical about the use of transponders, which would automatically debit money from commuters' accounts.

"We're just causal users," he said. "We use the HOV lane when we go into town to see a show or go to a museum."

During the five public meetings of the past two weeks, only one hearing had more than 80 people.

DOT spokeswoman Karlene Barron said the turnout was frustrating, but officials have planned another series of meetings for the summer, when more information such as the amount of the tolls will be available.

"It's a disappointment that people aren't engaging," she said.