In two years, Gwinnett County drivers can expect to have new lanes to use on Interstate 85 in the northern part of the county — but they’ll have to pay to drive in them.
State and local officials gathered in the sweltering summer heat Wednesday and broke ground on the expansion of toll lanes, officially known as express lanes, on the interstate in Gwinnett County. The expansion will extend existing express lanes from where they currently end, at Old Peachtree Road, to Hamilton Mill Road.
“The addition of 10 miles of newly built capacity … connected to the existing 16 miles farther south will provide motorists with 26 miles of express lanes that they can choose to use on a daily basis for their mobility in and around this region,” Georgia Department of Transportation Deputy Commission Mike Dover said.
Construction on the $178 million expansion is expected to wrap up in the summer of 2018, according to Georgia DOT officials. It’s different from the original stretch of toll lanes on the interstate in that brand new lanes are being built to be used as toll lanes, rather than converting existing lanes as was done before.
The original express lanes opened in 2011 and State Road and Tollway Authority Executive Director Chris Tomlinson said they have been used heavily since then.
“With the current I-85 express lanes, we are currently averaging over 25,000 trips per day,” he said. “To put that into contest, when we first opened them, we were averaging about 7,500 trips per day. There’s been a phenomenal amount of growth in the usage per day.”
As for the specifics of the project, Georgia DOT District 1 Engineer Brent Cook said one lane will be added for each direction, while the existing lanes lanes on I-85 in that area will also be re-surfaced. Officials also plan to add 4.6 miles of auxiliary lanes.
This is one of several express lane construction projects that the state has underway across metro Atlanta. The other projects are on Interstate 75. One of those is in the south metro area in Henry County. The other is on the northwest side of the metro area, in Cobb County.
Local officials see the project as having positive benefits for people who drive in that area, which includes the popular and heavily-traveled Mall of Georgia area. Hamilton Mill Road is the last exit on I-85 in Gwinnett, although county residents who live in the Chateau Elan area use the State Route 211 exit in Barrow County.
The stretch of I-85 that goes through Gwinnett is also a major corridor for freight movement. County commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said that fact, as well as the influx of drivers from Barrow, Hall and Jackson counties that use the interstate to get to and from Atlanta, shows why the new lanes are needed.
“There are still some folks that are not particularly happy about the transformation of the HOV lanes to the express lanes in that section of 85,” Nash said. “But in this case, it’s actually going to be additional capacity. It’s additional lanes that are going to be built.”