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."