Toll lanes on road to reality

DULUTH -- Interstate 85's carpool lanes will soon be converted to high-occupancy toll lanes, after a contractor for the project was awarded Friday.

Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Vance Smith announced the bid award Friday at a transportation summit, held by the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, where many new options for transportation funding were discussed.

"I personally think it's going to give that reliable trip time that people are looking for," Smith said of the technology, which will allow drivers to pay for access to the lane and for prices to change based on traffic in an attempt to guarantee the lane flows at 45 mph.

"I don't know if you'll ever get it to flow freely, but I think you'll get it to flow freer," Smith said, adding that the project also includes a boost to transit and encourages people to carpool with at least three in a vehicle, which will provide free access to the lane. "You put all these others together and I think you'll see relief."

The technology, which includes fiber optic cable, new signage, cameras and gantries to calculate tolls, should be in place in a year, officials said. It will be installed by World Fiber Technologies at a price of $11.7 million.

Including more buses and expanded park-and-ride options, the project is being funded by a $110 million federal grant as a demonstration project.

Smith said he is willing to investigate any option to resolve metro Atlanta's traffic issues. He's excited about the proposed diverging diamond interchanges that could soon be built at Interstate 85 at Pleasant Hill Road and Jimmy Carter Boulevard and moving forward with public-private partnerships to build major projects.

Bureaucrats aren't allowed to openly campaign for a ballot measure, but Smith and GDOT Planning Director Todd Long gave some facts about a proposed constitutional amendment that would impose regional sales taxes to fund transportation.

Long explained a process that will begin next week to choose a list of projects for the funding, which could bring in $1.5 billion a year if all 12 regions in Georgia approve the tax.

Long said he hopes to release a set of criteria for choosing the projects, which will be considered by roundtables made of commission chairmen and mayors from the region. Gwinnett would be in the Atlanta region with Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Clayton, Rockdale, Cherokee, Douglas, Fayette and Henry counties.

The Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce is expected to campaign for approval of the measure, which will be on primary ballots in 2012, and leaders listened Friday to a woman who led a similar campaign in Denver to get pointers on appealing to voters.