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Irate residents walk out on HOT lanes meeting

DACULA -- Sen. Renee Unterman said transportation and toll officials are unlikely to come back to Gwinnett after the angry reception they received at a town hall meeting Monday, when irate residents walked out, shouting to the leaders.

"They bamboozled us," Robert Thompson said as he walked out of the meeting, a GOP event where Unterman had arranged for talks about the controversial HOT lanes project, which has slowed traffic on Interstate 85 since tolls began earlier this month. "All they wanted to do was make speeches. What I wanted to hear is why we can't say to the federal government to go back to two-person (carpools using the lane for free)."

Unterman apologized about the confusion in the format, where questions were directed to officials but residents were not able to speak their minds. At the end, she said she may arrange for another meeting, although she said the Georgia Department of Transportation and State Road and Tollway Authority officials may not be there to answer questions.

Frustrations quickly mounted an hour into the event.

Jennifer Irby couldn't hold her tongue.

"It is a nightmare, and extra access will not solve the issue," she said after interrupting to say that the low usage of the HOT lanes has proved it is a failure.

But state officials said four other cities that have converted high-occupancy lanes to toll lanes experienced similar drawbacks during the initial implementation.

"As time went on, people got used to it, it started to settle out," interim Transportation Commissioner Gerald Ross said. "The data is just going in and it's going to take some time."

Unterman, who represents Buford, said she was disappointed that many people did not stick around to hear answers, especially when the officials said legislators may be able to pass laws to tweak the system, such as giving veterans free Peach Passes.

At the beginning of the meeting, politicians from the state and local level said they were listening to constituent concerns about the lanes. Even a school board member said he would pitch in.

But much of the crowd wasn't mollified by the recent changes prompted by Gov. Nathan Deal lowering the tolls, beginning work on a new access point and asking federal officials for permission to decrease the free occupancy requirement from three people in a car to two.

"It makes me mad that we even had to ask them," Rep. Josh Clark said.

Outside the meeting, in Northview Church's lobby, Howard Rodgers waited with petitions. Donna Helm of Buford didn't hesitate to sign.

"If people band together and don't go on it, that's going to help. That's all that's going to help," she said. "It has done nothing but back (I-85) up even worse."