ATLANTA -- The countdown has begun for tolls to be charged on Interstate 85 in Gwinnett.
In less than two weeks, the decade of high-occupancy vehicle lanes will end and the day of the Peach Pass will begin.
"The opening of the I-85 express lanes will represent a new era in transportation innovation," said Gena L. Evans, executive director of the State Road and Tollway Authority, which is in charge of the implementation. "This all-electronic commuting choice gives registered Peach Pass customers access to a more reliable travel option in the I-85 corridor. The express lanes concept has been proven successful in eight other cities, and we are excited about its ability to positively impact I-85 traffic and keep metro Atlantans moving."
People are preparing for the Oct. 1 opening date of the managed lane system, which is contingent on weather and other concerns. Drivers are signing up for the Peach Pass, while transportation crews are putting the last minute touches on the signs and testing the system.
But during the testing, where toll amounts will at times be posted on signs along the 16-mile corridor from Old Peachtree Road to Chamblee-Tucker Road, people won't be charged.
In the meantime, people should follow the normal HOV rules, where cars with two people inside can use the lane.
Sign changes began Friday and are expected to take 10 days. In all, six crews will be making 128 changes to 105 signs along the corridor. They will remove the HOV pavement markings and install new express lane ones. The work requires nightly lane closures from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. on I-85. Pacing will occur on Ga. Highway 316 westbound.
"During the sign transition, motorists have the opportunity to get more familiar with these new regulatory signs prior to the launch of the express lanes," said Georgia DOT chief engineer Gerald Ross. "Motorist should also note that the existing High Occupancy Vehicle lanes will continue in operation, allowing vehicles with 2 or more people, motorcycles and alternate fuel vehicles to use the lanes until the express lane system are open on Oct. 1."
For a complete guide to the high-occupancy toll lanes, see today's Community section, page 1C.
The opening of the new high-occupancy toll lanes along Interstate 85 brings the concept of managed lanes to Georgia for the first time.
The pricing changes based on the amount of congestion along the corridor, from 10 cents per mile when traffic is clear to 90 cents a mile to get out of a bumper-to-bumper situation.
It’s meant to keep the HOT lane clearer during the high traffic times because fewer people would be willing to pay the steep toll.
But rest assured, officials say. If you enter the HOT lanes when the signs advertise a 20 cents per mile rate, but traffic increases and the rate goes up to 50 cents a mile, you will be charged the original rate.
According to a study, officials expect the average trip length to be between 6 and 7 miles, with typical toll prices ranging from 60 cents to $6, depending on the congestion. More than 90 percent of customers will pay less that $5 for their trip, including about 25 percent who will not pay the toll at all, as carpoolers.
Whether you pay the toll or not, every vehicle must have a Peach Pass.
The new transponder, that also works for Ga. 400 tolls, is a small tag that must be placed in the center of your windshield, below the rearview mirror.
The tag is picked up by technology along the HOT lanes that automatically deducts money from your account for the toll.
An account can be set up online at www.peachpass.com or by calling 1-855-PCH-PASS. On the website, people can alert the toll authority they plan to carpool, but the status must be changed at least 20 minutes prior to using the lane.
The pass costs $20, which is then applied to the account and can be used for the first toll payments.
The State Road and Tollway Authority opened a customer service center at 47 Trinity Ave. in Atlanta, where customers can set up and manage accounts in person.
Since high-occupancy vehicle lanes were set up on I-85 in the late ’90s, carpoolers, buses, motorcyclists and alternative fuel vehicles (which do not include hybrids) have been able to use the lanes for free.
That won’t change with the new managed lanes system, although the carpool threshold has increased.
Instead of being allowed access with two people in a car, the lanes are only free to carpools with three or more occupants.
For people who have been carpooling but need a third rider to make the trip free, the Clean Air Campaign is working to match people. Go to CleanAirCampaign.org or call 1-877-CLEANAIR for help.
Even if you are carpooling, you still have to have a Peach Pass and set your account to show you are exempt.
One of the biggest changes to I-85’s far left lane comes in the access. Not only is the DOT reducing the breaks in the double white lane that make it legal to pass into and out of the lanes, but when the managed lane system is activated, people could face some extra fines for crossing it illegally.
With the HOT lanes intended to help people travelling longer distances on I-85, drivers who are trying to get to certain exits in Gwinnett should be aware where they can leave the lanes, so they don’t miss their exit off the interstate.
In the 16 miles between Old Peachtree Road and Chamblee-Tucker Road, there will be six access points to the HOT lanes. Signs along the highway indicate when the next break will come, but crossing over the double white lines early can cause a $25 fine.
The technology along I-85 can detect violators in the new managed lanes. It can tell when a car doesn’t have a Peach Pass or when people cross the double white lines to enter a lane.
Citations will be sent in the mail to the registered owner of violating vehicles, seeking a $25 fine plus the cost of the toll. If a patrolman pulls you over for setting your Peach Pass for a free ride when you do not have the needed passengers or for crossing the double white lines, the fine is $75.
Tickets can be disputed. For more information, go to www.peachpass.com.
In its first full year of the express lanes operations, officials expect to generate up to $3.9 million. (That number was calculated when officials expected an Aug. 1 opening, so it may no longer match up.)
Unlike the Ga. 400 tolls, which went to pay back bonds used to fund the construction of an extension, these revenues won’t go toward debts. Instead, all of the money will be earmarked for operations and maintenance of the express lanes.
According to Malika Reed Wilkins with the State Road and Tollway, the funds aren’t expected to exceed the needed operations funds for several years. Officials are working to determine how they would be used when they do.
I-85’s toll lanes are a pilot project that, if successful, will lead to managed lanes across metro Atlanta.
DOT officials have already moved forward on a public-private partnership that could bring the technology to I-75 north of the city, and a plan shows potential for nearly all of the northside interstates.