The ongoing conversion of Gwinnett's HOV lanes on Interstate 85 is, well, a topic of HOT debate.
Public backlash is understandable:
1) the new technology is complicated;
2) what once was free is going to cost; and
3) it's designed to be the most expensive when you need it most.
Officials say the purpose is to improve traffic flow. But eliminating the commuter lane and creating the so-called "Lexus lane" in which drivers pay by the mile seems counterintuitive to curbing congestion.
As the day the lane will switch from high-occupancy vehicle to high-occupancy toll draws near -- a switch date hasn't been finalized, but likely will be late summer -- the citizenry is skeptical and confused. The number one question? "How in the heck is this thing gonna work?"
No one knows the answer better than Malika Reed Wilkins, director of marketing/communications for the State Road and Tollway Authority. Wilkins' job is to educate Georgians about the HOT lanes -- not always a popular topic. She recently spoke to the Gwinnett Rotary Club and fielded a barrage of questions with certainty and aplomb.
Gwinnett got its 16 miles of HOV lanes over the last 10 years. These carpool lanes stretching from Old Peachtree Road to Chamblee-Tucker Road were designed to move more people -- not more cars -- by granting access to vehicles with two or more persons inside.
The HOT lanes require three people for a free ride, but also allow access to any driver willing to pay for the privilege.
The first thing everyone needs to understand is that if you want in the HOT lane, you must have a Georgia Peach Pass transponder on or in your vehicle. Doesn't matter how many people in your car or whether the vehicle qualifies for a free ride, you must have the transponder. This goes for out-of-state drivers, too. If you didn't call ahead and get your Peach Pass, best stay out of the HOT lane.
Peach Pass registration and more information are available online at www.peachpass.com, by phone at 855-PCH-PASS (724-7277) and in person at two Department of Driver Services locations in Gwinnett County: 2211 Beaver Ruin Road, Norcross, and 310 Hurricane Shoals Road N.E., Lawrenceville.
The next question is how does the system know if you've earned a free ride because there are three or more persons in your vehicle. The answer: You have to tell it. To drive toll-free you must call or go online and inform the tollway authority of your plans at least 15 minutes prior to entering the lane. And worth repeating, your vehicle still has to be equipped with a Peach Pass transponder.
Adding to commuter chagrin is that access points were eliminated in the switch from HOV to HOT and crossing the solid white line will result in a fine of $25.
If you ask someone on the street about the switch to HOT lanes, he or she will give you myriad reasons why it won't work. Yet, transportation officials say all the studies show HOT will be a success in improving traffic flow.
Like it or not, it's coming. Time will tell who is right.
But prepare for an onslaught the day the lanes switch. That's when things will really get HOT.
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