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One year later: Commuters still split over toll lanes

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Motorists travel southbound on Interstate 85 as October 1, marks the one year anniversary of the opening of express lanes on I-85. The toll lanes provides motorist with a Peach Pass or those who carpool with an express alternative to speed up their commute. The fee for traveling in the express lanes with a Peach Pass is determined based off the amount of traffic.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Motorists travel southbound on Interstate 85 as October 1, marks the one year anniversary of the opening of express lanes on I-85. The toll lanes provides motorist with a Peach Pass or those who carpool with an express alternative to speed up their commute. The fee for traveling in the express lanes with a Peach Pass is determined based off the amount of traffic.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Motorists travel northbound on Interstate 85 as October 1, marks the one year anniversary of the opening of express lanes on I-85. The toll lanes provides motorist with a Peach Pass or those who carpool with an express alternative to speed up their commute. The fee for traveling in the express lanes with a Peach Pass is determined based off the amount of traffic.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Motorists travel southbound on Interstate 85 as October 1, marks the one year anniversary of the opening of express lanes on I-85. The toll lanes provides motorist with a Peach Pass or those who carpool with an express alternative to speed up their commute. The fee for traveling in the express lanes with a Peach Pass is determined based off the amount of traffic.

HOT LANES BY THE NUMBERS

-- 190,281: Total Peach Passes issued

-- $3.05 million: Revenue raised from HOT lanes tolls

-- 269: Percent increase in total monthly HOT lane trips since opening

-- 16,677: Average number of weekday trips in HOT lanes

-- $1.35: Highest daily fare average for a month (Aug. 2012)

-- $5.95: Record-high toll rate for full 16-mile length of HOT lanes

LAWRENCEVILLE -- At the one-year anniversary of Gwinnett County's Interstate 85 HOT lanes, state officials are neither taking a victory lap nor throwing up a caution flag. There's hardly a consensus among commuters either.

The "high-occupancy toll lanes" along I-85 officially opened for business on Oct. 1, 2011, turning the rules of the former carpool lanes on their heads. For 364 days, drivers have had the option to use the lanes -- which stretch 16 miles north and southbound between Old Peachtree and Chamblee-Tucker roads -- for a fluctuating, congestion-dependent fee.

Since then, more than $3 million in toll fees has been collected from nearly 4 million individual trips taken using almost 200,000 different Peach Passes, the windshield-mounted transponders that are read and charged electronically when drivers use the HOT lanes.

Other than that, not a lot has changed: The HOT lanes still have their advocates and detractors, and success remains a hard thing to quantify.

Malika Reed Wilkins, director of marketing and communications for the HOT lanes-controlling State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA), said this week that no declarative assessment on the toll project's accomplishments will be made just yet.

"Though we have not declared success or failure of the express lanes," Wilkins said in an email, "we are pleased with how the data is trending thus far and will continue to closely monitor the performance of the lanes in the months ahead."

The data thus far shows great growth since the early days and fairly steady rates in Peach Passes issued, revenue collected and average number of weekday trips over the last six months.

Through the end of August, SRTA had collected $3,053,867 in revenue from the toll lanes. August was by far the most lucrative month for collection, the approximately $423,000 collected more than $70,000 than the next highest total.

If September's numbers -- which were not yet available -- are similar, the original projections that the HOT lanes could bring in as much as $3.9 million in their first year wouldn't be far off (even after tolls were lowered as much as 40 percent when Gov. Nathan Deal spoke out after less than a week of operation).

After the roughly 115,000 Peach Passes issued prior to and in the first two months following the lanes' activation, a steady stream of between 7,000 and 9,000 passes have been purchased each month. Through August, 190,281 Peach Passes had been purchased.

Over the last six months, an average of just under 17,000 weekday HOT lanes trips have been recorded each month. The lanes have seen a 269 percent increase in usage since their initial month of action.

What exactly all that means is still debatable, even among officials -- as is the impact of the HOT lanes on the everyday travels of Gwinnett drivers.

Dacula resident Mark Christopher commutes to Kennesaw every day. He called the HOT lanes a "huge time saver" that have enabled him to make it home in time to coach a 6 p.m. T-ball game more than once.

He said he's spent up to $80 in a month on tolls but called it worth spending more time with his family.

"I actually have found that I get much better gas mileage using the HOT lane rather than sitting in stop and go traffic," Christopher said. "It has pros and cons, but for me and me only, the pros outweigh the cons."

Lawrenceville resident Scott "Rocket" Dorer called the lanes his own "little slice of Atlanta traffic heaven" that he uses to take his Harley-Davidson to and from appointments at the Veterans Affairs clinic in Decatur.

Tina Truman of Dacula said she uses the lanes, but lobbied for more lane entrances and exits and complained that the electronic billboards advertising toll and traffic rates weren't always accurate.

Bruce Johnson, on the other hand, said he used to commute from Snellville every day with a coworker, taking advantage of the former HOV lanes that allowed access for only carpoolers, motorcyclists and a few other exceptions.

That tradition was squashed when the HOT lanes (which necessitate three carpool riders for free travel) were born, and Johnson said the transition drove him to leave his job in Midtown and take one closer to home.

"Success should not be determined by how many people are paying to use a highway that was already paid for by taxpayers," Johnson said. "It should be determined by how it improves the quality of the commute. On this criteria the HOT lanes are a massive fail."

David Hidding of Suwanee said he couldn't decide if state officials were "clueless or detached." He claimed the previous HOV lanes were replaced "over the mighty objections of us common folk" and called the HOT lanes double taxation.

Unlike the original revenues from the Ga. Highway 400 tolls, which went to pay back bonds used to fund the construction of an extension, funds collected from the HOT lanes aren't going toward debts. The money is instead being earmarked for operations and maintenance of the lanes themselves.

It's unclear how SRTA officials will use revenue when it exceeds the cost of operations, which isn't expected to happen for several years.

Plans to extend the HOT lanes 11 miles to the north at Hamilton Mill Road (and outside the county on Interstate 75) were recently announced, but likely years away as well if Department of Transportation officials go through with the project.

Even by then, it's a safe bet the conversation won't be any less divisive.

"We see it for what it is," Hidding said. "Another means for the government to tax, regulate and fine us."

Said Christopher: "I use it every day."

Comments

JohnGalt 2 years ago

Let's get something straight Tyler. A hand full of supporters versus huge numbers of opponents does not a split make. We have managed after one year to keep the resident SRTA mouthpiece, Malika Reed Williams employed. What a great deal this woman has! And what is this revenue for? "...The money is instead being earmarked for operations and maintenance of the lanes themselves..." LOL, you just can't make this crap up!

You're always going to have fools like Mark Christopher who commutes from Dacula to Kennesaw every day. Here's another idiot that is perfectly content allowing the taxpayers to subsidize his idiocy to live on one side of the planet and commute to the other. Move moron! We, the taxpayers, didn't take you to raise!

And last, I want somebody to tell me by whose authority and under what jurisdiction these gov'ment agencies have been allowed to extort this money from the taxpayers without so much as a challenge? Even the legislators that have looked into it have backed off and turned away. Is it because they, by their own ignorance, helped put it into place by voting for it so they could see what was in it? Please tell me we have a means to tear this mess down and restore it to the people who have already paid for it. But instead of tearing it down, all we are seeing is more of the same. The DOT and the SRTA are two agencies that need to be reigned in, or should I say abolished where the SRTA is concerned.

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dentaldawg83 2 years ago

split?!?!?!? this article belongs on the editorial page, imo

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Sandykin 2 years ago

Most of us are struggling to keep up with the house note and utility bills. At $80 a month, the HOT toll is an unaffordable luxury. To us ordinary folks, the HOT is a Highly Offensive TAX!!!

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jack 2 years ago

The DOT is planning to expand the HOT lanes to Hamilton Mill (or beyond), yet the existing lanes have not been deemed a success or failure by SRTA. (Most of those driving this corridor already know the real answer)

I wonder how many DOT board members live at Chateau Elan or have a getaway spot on Lake Hartwell?

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R 1 year, 12 months ago

Just have to wonder how much will be spent at the I-985 north bound junction with I-85 to implement the HOT lanes north?

The junction currently IS the LEFT hand lane. I see a 316 mega intersection rebuild coming.

Maybe even a flyover lane or 2!

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Sthrnldy 1 year, 12 months ago

Bless her heart, Miss Occupy promised she was going to tackle the pesky HOT lanes but never did. She still has lots of time on her hands to help and protest. Seems she has nothing better to do than to make up stories about abandoned dogs and call the local TV news. Looks as if Miss Occupy Gwinnett that lives in Walton county misses the spotlight!

http://www.wsbtv.com/news/news/local/mother-son-rescue-abandoned-dog/nRKY3/

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Don_Coyote 1 year, 12 months ago

With an upfront cost of converting already existing lanes from HOV to Lexus Lanes of $110,000,000 and gross receipts of ~3.5 million you do the math on how long it will take to pay just the initial cost of this I-85 project alone. Ms. Wilkins will point out that this was Federal money and doesn't count but this is the feds only giving us back a sliver of the Federal motor fuel tax we all pay. It was also money that could have been used as the Federal match on more worthwhile interstate projects that help alleviate traffic rather than exacerbate. The choice to go with a barrier-less lane with electronic monitoring personally patented by the former head of SRTA and her minions impedes traffic in the normal lanes. The merging maneuvers required to migrate across all lanes to enter and exit the Lexus Lane do help create the need for many to pay the toll but 17,000 vehicles both ways in a 24 hour period counting buses, cops and other non-paying ones is not worth the impediments to the vast majority.

Now at a time when we've just heard the poor mouthing regarding TSPLOST and the dearth of motor fuel taxes GDOT has approved more than half a BILLION DOLLARS from the motor fuel tax receipts to go toward 2 dedicated Lexus Lanes in Cobb for the I-75/I-575 corridor. This will go with a Federal match for a project that will come in around a Billion dollars total.

The problem they refuse to face up to is that the Lexus Lane users will refuse to pay the actual cost of building the lanes exclusively for their use. If they were to sell bonds for the full cost of just the state's portion a la GA400 they would not be able to set a toll high enough to pay the bonds off in the normal 20-30 year period. All of the taxpayers subsidizing a small percentage of the wealthier taxpayers is just not good government. Yes there is a split, but if you are not using GDOT/SRTA bureaucrats whose job depends on these boondoggles then I would bet you would find the ratio on that split to be about 4-1 against. To our Gwinnett representatives I for one will vote against every one of you I can that has supported the party line on this colossal waste of taxpayer money that could be better utilized.

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R 1 year, 12 months ago

The state now has 3 million more dollars than it had before. Its a success by their standard and it will expand up to Braselton but NOT back toward Atlanta? Hmmm.

Yep its all for the children

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Gwinnettsince1991 1 year, 12 months ago

Which is why as soon as I retire, I am leaving this area. And my children, who are in college and high school will be leaving this area as well. When the government uses ridiculous taxes for self sufficiency it is time to go because you have become Chicago....

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Don_Coyote 1 year, 12 months ago

The article cites the number of Peach passes issued at 190,281 and even an "idiot" can determine that is not more than 200,000. This number is all of the passes issued to GA400 toll payers, Bus fleets, State Patrol, GDOT, 3+ HOV, motorcycles and others. And those are PEACH Passes not "HOT lane passes". The article is completely misleading (probably led by Ms. Wilkins) that the 3 mil was collected from almost 200,000 different Peach Passes since an unpublished number are for GA400 users and issued, (not "purchased"), ones to non-paying government organizations. In the advertising biz this is called the bandwagon technique and Ms. Wilkins has been drumming this from the get go.

I'm fine with people like you who want to pay to "move up and down the interstate". I just want you to pay the full amount to meet the cost of the lane's construction and maintenance like any other toll road without being subsidized by all the rest of the taxpayers. Conservatives and others have objected to subsidies for the poor for years but turning around and subsidizing the rich is just absurd.

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Hangdog 1 year, 12 months ago

@GwinnettisGreat: Why should we have to pay to use a lane that was already paid for by our tax dollars. That lane was initially added as an HOV lane as a part of the lead up to the Olympics using OUR tax dollars. Then, SRTA/GDOT take control of it to make it an HOT lane....that doesn't even pay its own operating costs, but we have over educated bureaucrats like Gena Evans and Malika Reed Wilkins with full time jobs, spouting out nonsense about the success of the project. And as noted above, they are talking about extending it OUT but can't say if it is a 'success'. SRTA/GDOTS description of success has changed constantly throughout the past year anyway, so I was surprised to see that Ms. Wilkins didn't deem it a smashing success.

And to Scott "Rocket" Dorer, the Harley driver quoted in the article. You could use the HOV land FOR FREE anyway, prior to the theft of the lane anyway, so this isn't changing your situation at all.

Keep up the good fight John Galt and GwinnettSince91. Someone has to tell the emporer he isn't wearing any clothes.

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gwinnettisgreat1 1 year, 12 months ago

I tell you what Hangdog, you are right. Keep protesting the "good fight" over there sitting on the interstate... complaining, whining, typing... the rest of the 200,000 + people have got to get to work. The top 1% has to keep you guys in business. Plus, with all the new taxes from dear Ruler, Caesar Obamus, We have to get to work on time to keep the little people in business.

Its all about the money. Those who have not, ticked off about those who have more... You can blame the DOT, SRTA... I don't care. I get to work faster and you complain. One is a whole lot more productive than the other. So where do you find yourself? Maybe you can start a complainer's union?

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R 1 year, 12 months ago

There would be no room to complain if they had left the car pool requirements alone...

It makes perfect sense to be able to "pay" a premium to travel solo if you need to. But when they changed the requirements, it drove many back into the poor man lanes and fouled travel big time.

If you or your employer can bill the extra expense back to your CONSUMERS like attorneys can - go for it. But after YEARS of being told with countless apparently wasted ad dollars about air quality, that we needed to "carpool" when they turned it all over on its head, it's just hard to believe the STRA / GRTA flavor of the month positions.

But I can believe Mayor Kaseem Reed when he stated he was elated and looking forward to the revenue. Of course spending 110 million + to collect 3 million is an equation only a government could love.

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BuzzG 1 year, 12 months ago

Facts are what Tyler Estep says they are. Don't confuse him.

I'll bet if you did a survey, you would find 25 to one against more toll lanes.

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elmnoise 1 year, 12 months ago

No comment on whether HOT lanes are justified or not. They're here now, so I'll comment on how they could be improved.

I think the cap should be removed, letting the toll prices rise (as was originally designed). It already gets too crowded during peak hours in the HOT lanes. More entrance/exit points in the current stretch will just slow it down more.

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Mack711 1 year, 12 months ago

The HOT lanes were created to keep Evans and Wilkins in Jobs. Evans saw a chance to put her self as emperor and goddess of the HOT lanes using Federal money that other cities had turned down. These other cities saw what a problem this would create. The funds raised do not go to pay for maintaing these lanes much less the salaries of the staff. These HOT lanes need to be stopped now and never be allowed on any existing Georgia roadway.

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toby 1 year, 12 months ago

I fmore people buy passes, wouldn't that clog up the fast lane? Then do we mak 2 lanes fast lanes? When will the maddness end?

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Mack711 1 year, 12 months ago

That is the general idea and it is in the works now.

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Hangdog 1 year, 12 months ago

I've also never heard how they are at mailing out and collecting fines. I see at least 6 people per day entering in places other than the entrance points. Was almost hit this morning as someone came busting out of the lane to get around a bus.

A coworker of mine told me she enters and exits every morning over the double line and hasn't received a fine yet, either through pulling the money out of her account or from a special notice.

@GwinnettIsGreat: I was a carpool user dating back to 1996. They took that away and want to charge use to use what we already paid for. Toll lanes are probably a good idea, but you don't take away a travel lane that was given to the state in the first place. What is the most maddening are the lies that Evans and Wilkins and the rest of the SRTA/GDot crowd have continued to spout.

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