Hearing discusses proposal to toll I-85

DULUTH -- Every day, Heather and Brian Willard commute together from their Flowery Branch Road home.

Heather Willard drops off her husband at work in Atlanta, then turns northward toward her college campus.

"I get the benefit of the (high-occupancy vehicle) lane, and it makes it a little easier," she said.

But the couple are concerned that they may soon have to pay to use the lane, as state and federal officials have proposed a $180 million project to convert the Interstate 85 lanes to high-occupancy toll lanes.

"We have one income right now," Heather Willard said during the final public hearing on the project Thursday. "It wouldn't work for us."

During the hearing, officials released more details on the project, including points where drivers would be allowed to enter the lane and how transponder technology would be used to collect tolls and help with enforcement.

Drivers would only legally be allowed to enter the 16-mile HOT lanes at seven dotted-line segments on the northbound stretch and six locations southbound.

That was good news for Buford man Greg Morand, who drives a motorcycle every day to work. His vehicle would remain free in the toll lanes, and he said the less places to enter the lanes will improve safety.

"Because it still includes my vehicle, I'm happy," he said, adding that he does believe transportation money would be better spent on an outer perimeter or other traffic fixes. "That's the bigger issue."

While no further hearings are scheduled, people can continue to comment on the project through Nov. 23 via e-mail at hotlanecomment@jacobs.com, and information is available at www.dot.ga.gov/I85HOTlanes.

The final comments will be included in a proposal to the Federal Highway Administration, which is expected to determine if the project will be built next month.

If the administration gives its blessing, bids could be let in January, said DOT spokeswoman Teri Pope, and the project could be completed by January 2011.

Pope said the public involvement in the process has been disappointing. In the first seven meetings, 457 people showed up and only 354 comments were left. On Thursday, 70 people attended the last hearing.

"(About) 250,000 use this section of roadway a day," she said. "It's disheartening we've had so many meetings and haven't been able to get more comments."