Gridlock Guy: Peach Pass upgrades pay for parking and will allow use in more states

Metro Atlanta’s Peach Pass is most associated with the Express Lanes that are adjacent to stretches of I-75, I-575, and I-85. But Georgia’s tolling system is not only preparing to add more lanes over the next decade, but is also making itself available in more places and with more functions.

Peach Pass Plus debuted July 26th and operates hand-in-hand with the spike in air travel that Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has seen in 2021. State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) Executive Director Chris Tomlinson explained how a Peach Pass helps drivers park easier.

“If you go to the ATL West Parking deck — it’s near the rental car center, it’s clearly marked on all of [the Airport’s] signage,” Tomlinson told the AJC and 95.5 WSB on the latest WSB Traffic Podcast. “If you have a Peach Pass and you’re set up with a credit card to auto-replenish your account, you literally drive into any lane in that deck. It’ll automatically read your Peach Pass, you’ll see the gate go up, and you can park.”

This new Peach Pass feature also alleviates the oft-stressful trip home. “When you come back, you just exit, you never have to pull a ticket, and immediately you’ll get a receipt that will show up in your Peach Pass account that you can access through the Peach Pass Go 2.0 mobile app.” That will make business-expensing the parking charges both digital and seamless, Tomlinson said.

Drivers need to make sure they have a credit card attached to their Peach Pass account for this auto-debiting parking feature to work. “The charge will go right to the credit card associated with the account, so you won’t mess with your toll balance,” Tomlinson explained.

That requirement may make some cringe, but it makes sense and can work as a safeguard. Toll rates and parking rates are very different and a Peach Pass user could easily “overdraft” the balance of money they upload into their account, if they parked for a few days in the ATL West parking deck. The price for a spot there is $16 per day.

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Those that prefer to take their long distance trips by car will soon have more options too. As the Peach Pass turns 10 years old this fall, the automated tolling system that uses a small transponder decal under the rearview mirror is slowly becoming integrated with systems in other states. Georgia’s toll system already works with the Florida SunPass and the North Carolina Quick Pass lanes and booths. Tomlinson had hoped back in February that the Peach Pass would work in the 19-state E-Z Pass toll system by the end of this year. SRTA now targets mid-2022 before the two systems are compatible.

“E-Z Pass is probably the largest tolling consortium in the country. It’s predominantly on the east coast, but goes as far west as Illinois and also includes a couple of border crossings into Canada,” Tomlinson said, adding, “That Peach Pass is going to work at any toll facility on the eastern seaboard.”

Drivers who capitalize on that flexibility are going to need to chart their trips by researching how the other toll systems charge vehicles. Peach Pass Express Lanes have variable toll rates based on capacity. Some corridors have fixed rates and those rates can be quite high near big cities. Just as with the parking feature, people shouldn’t drive into out-of-state toll roads blind and with no expectation of what that will cost them.

Tomlinson also oversees the ATL (the Atlanta-Region Transit Link), an organization that endeavors to connect the different local transit systems. Tomlinson said that local bus usage is at 55-60% of pre-pandemic levels and his team hopes to boost ridership and ease worries with new sanitizing options for buses, including air ionizers and continued mask requirements.

SRTA and the ATL rightfully operate under the same umbrella and have to work with each other in mind, as Peach Pass lanes proliferate in the next decade. When GDOT builds two new Peach Pass Express Lanes along each side of I-285 anywhere north of I-20, the state will configure them with existing toll lanes coming off of I-85 and I-75 and the future ones on GA-400. This means contractors will build special Express-only entrances from the left sides of those freeways into those I-285 lanes, Tomlinson said.

Using a Peach Pass or not has been a polarizing topic. Some call them “Lexus Lanes” that are purpose-built only for those that can afford them. Aside from the initial I-85 deployment in Gwinnett in 2011, every other Peach Pass toll lane has added capacity to freeways, lightening the loads in the original lanes. And now those that have bitten the peach and added the transponder will be able to use lanes in even more states within a year. And they will be able to park with more cashless ease at the Atlanta Airport. The system is not perfect, but seeing that SRTA and the ATL isn’t content standing still is a good thing.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.