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Rush hour impact of toll lanes on I-85

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman The new Express Lanes along I-85 didn't have much traffic during the morning rush hour.
 The new Express Lanes along I-85 didn't have much traffic during the morning rush hour.
 The new Express Lanes along I-85 didn't have much traffic during the morning rush hour.
 The new Express Lanes along I-85 didn't have much traffic during the morning rush hour. 

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman The new Express Lanes along I-85 didn't have much traffic during the morning rush hour. The new Express Lanes along I-85 didn't have much traffic during the morning rush hour. The new Express Lanes along I-85 didn't have much traffic during the morning rush hour. The new Express Lanes along I-85 didn't have much traffic during the morning rush hour. 

LAWRENCEVILLE — For more than two years, Libby Blackwell has carpooled to work, using the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Interstate 85 to get from her home in Dacula to her job in Decatur.

But with no free access to the lanes anymore, Blackwell didn’t just switch to the general purpose lanes; she changed her entire route, taking U.S. Highway 29 to work Monday morning.

“I just don’t consider that an option,” she said of paying tolls for access to the lane, which began this weekend. She said the U.S. 29 route added about 10 minutes to her commute. “It’s certainly not enough to pay for (the new option).”

Officials said the Monday morning rush hour — the first test of the new high-occupancy toll lane system — went smoothly, although there were relatively few commuters using the toll lane.

Those who did pay got through traffic easily, the State Road and Tollway Authority reported, saying that during the peak morning period from 7:30 to 8:45 a.m., it took toll payers 14 to 15 minutes to traverse the 16 mile stretch from Old Peachtree Road to Chamblee-Tucker Road. That was a third of the time it took people in the general purpose lane to make that stretch (47 minutes).

At its most congested, the toll price peaked at $5.50 for that length, or about 35 cents per mile. At its lowest, the price for the entire distance was $1.55.

Julie Kilpatrick, who takes a vanpool from Lawrenceville to Buckhead, had free access to the lane in the van. But she said even her commute took 12 minutes longer, since traffic backed up on Ga. Highway 316 before the express lanes.

“Throughout the Gwinnett County portion of our commute, I observed that the ‘normal’ lanes were much more congested than usual,” Kilpatrick said in an email. “My point is that this is apparently a lose-lose for everyone, especially the taxpayers.”

While statistics for the afternoon rush hour were not available, Blackwell, who took I-85 then to go to a doctor’s appointment, said cars were more than a mile apart in the express lane.

“What a bust,” she said. “Normally that would be a pretty full lane.”

On Monday, many people were still trying to understand the rules of the system.

Tim Echols, a public service commissioner who lives in Athens, called the Peach Pass customer service center at 1-855-PCH-PASS as he prepared to commute to the commission’s meeting today.

Since January, when he began driving a compressed natural gas car to the Capitol, he has had free use of the HOV lanes. As the driver of an alternative fuel vehicle, he will continue to have free access, but on Monday he learned he still has to have a Peach Pass, the transponder required for every HOT lane vehicle, even those who won’t have to pay the toll, such as carpoolers with three people in a vehicle.

“That HOV lane saves me 20 minutes on some days,” said Echols, whose Peach Pass is in the mail. He will have to leave early for today’s meeting.

“Alternative fuel cars are inconvenient. I’m glad I can drive one, but it’s very inconvenient,” he said, adding that he plans to test drive a Nissan Leaf to the Capitol on Thursday, but he will have to stop at Atlantic Station to charge the battery. “You have to have an incentive (such as the free toll).”

Karlene Barron, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation, said the light traffic on the express lanes was likely because traffic in the general purpose lane was “not bad.” A crash that backs up the lanes more than normal could cause more to shift to pay the toll.

“Folks have to have a need to use it,” she said. “People are just getting used to it.”

In the most congested part of the corridor, during the morning peak period, drivers in the general purpose lanes had an average speed of 30 miles per hour, while those in the express lanes could drive 55 miles per hour, the tollway authority said.

“Motorists who drove in the Express Lanes this morning did experience a time savings,” said Gena Evans, executive director for the State Road and Tollway Authority. “We will continue to monitor the performance of the Express Lanes and share data on a daily basis for the remainder of our first week of operation.”

Through the weekend and Monday’s morning rush, officers with the Georgia Department of Public Safety’s motor carrier division issued 10 warnings, a spokesman said. Three were to out-of-state drivers and the remaining were for violations of drivers crossing the double white lines.

Evans said a “grace period” from fines will be allowed, so people can get used to the enforcement, but she did not say how long the period would be.

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Did you take the high-occupancy toll lanes today? Are you a carpooler that could no longer get in the lane for free? Tell us about your experience. Contact reporter Camie Young at camie.young@gwinnettdailypost.com or call 770-963-9205, ext. 1314.