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Toll lanes a HOT topic

DULUTH -- With construction crews gearing up to add technology to Interstate 85, residents have one more chance to give input into the state's toll lane project.

Fiber optic cables and signs will pave the way for traffic relief, officials say of the project, while critics say it punishes carpoolers who have used the high-occupancy vehicle lanes for free.

"It's a method of attacking the congestion. HOV lanes was one of these (methods), but it's not working that well," Georgia Department of Transportation spokesman Mohamed Arafa said.

While cars with two people inside will no longer have free access to the lanes, which will cover 16 miles from Chamblee-Tucker Road to Old Peachtree Road, it will be complimentary for carpoolers with three or more in a vehicle, buses, motorcyclists and alternative-fuel vehicles.

Everyone else will have a chance to drive in the lanes, but at a price. The rate will vary based on traffic, going up the more congested the interstate is, because officials are hoping to promise a 45 mph flow. According to a study released last year, the average trip will vary from 60 cents to $6.

"It will benefit everybody, not just the affluent," Arafa said. "When you move out of my lane and go to the HOT lane, I can go faster, and I don't have to pay."

Arafa said the pay structure is still up in the air, but officials have released information about a planned Peach Pass program, which includes a transponder to record when drivers enter and exit the HOT lanes. The technology will be available this spring, and officials hope to open the toll lanes by next September.

In the meantime, as crews prepare to begin lane closures at night, beginning in the next several weeks, the planning continues.

A public meeting is scheduled from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Gwinnett Center to continue getting feedback on the proposal.

"This is to serve the travelers on I-85," Arafa said. "Their concerns are important because we are still shaping up the project. Their input will give us a feel as to what they want."