Atlanta traffic: HOT lanes mostly empty on first commute

Metro Atlanta commuters began using the new optional toll lanes on I-85 Monday morning, and from early indications, the demand wasn't great.

The toll lanes opened over the weekend on I-85's HOV lanes in Gwinnett County, and their first big test was Monday morning's rush hour. From Old Peachtree Road in Gwinnett to Chamblee Tucker Road in DeKalb, commuters, even solo drivers, could enter the lanes to leave the traffic jam on the rest of the highway. But they have to pay a fee, which will rise and fall with congestion.

At a press conference Monday afternoon, State Road and Tollway Officials said the lane had saved some drivers a half an hour in the Monday morning rush hour at the most congested point. During that period a ride in the main lanes took 33 minutes, but a ride on the toll lane took 14 or 15 minutes, said SRTA director Gena Evans. The highest toll was $5.50 for the entire 15-mile trip, or 35 cents per mile.

Evans said she did not have reliable figures yet on how many people had used the lane so far or how much toll revenue had been collected.

Early reports from the scene indicated few motorists were using the lanes. DOT cameras showed the lanes mostly empty on the Gwinnett County portion of I-85.

One commuter offered an explanation on Twitter: "I don't think many people are going to use them, cost of commuting is bad enough, not going to pay any extra on top of that."

Another, however, found the empty lanes a big plus: "It took me 6 minutes on the toll lane from Steve Reynolds to 285. Never got to work [before] in 25 minutes with traffic."

The State Road & Tollway Authority scheduled a 3 p.m. news conference to discuss the first day.

Drivers must have a Peach Pass to use the toll lanes. Peach Passes can be acquired from the website

The goal of the toll price is to stay high enough to always keep the lanes flowing, at least 45 mph.

"It's going to take folks some time to get used to it," said State Road and Tollway Authority Director Gena Evans.

The $60 million budget for the road project includes funding for four state troopers to patrol the lanes full time for violators. But they're going to go easy at first, to give drivers a chance to figure it out, Evans said.

Here are some tips, and some background:

An I-85 toll lane user’s guide

  • Register: Every vehicle that sets a wheel in the toll lanes must have a Peach Pass, even if you're not required to pay the toll.
  • Remember, no cash: All tolls are electronic.
  • Who pays: solo drivers and two-person car pools
  • Who doesn't: Car pools of three people or more, transit vehicles, motorcycles, cars with alternative fuel license plates and mass transit ride free.
  • Prohibited: trucks with more than six wheels and/or two axles
  • Making changes:To switch from toll-paying to free, or vice versa, you must reset your Peach Pass account by phone or computer at least 15 minutes before you enter the lane. If your switching is regular, you can pre-set certain days or times as paying or nonpaying.
  • How much it costs: The toll ranges from 10 cents a mile to 90 cents a mile, rising with congestion. The State Road and Tollway Authority can go over 90 cents a mile in special cases.
  • Don't: cross the double solid lines (you must enter or exit only at the dashed lines).
  • Fines: A violation can reap both a $25 SRTA fine, which happens electronically and is mailed to the driver, and a police fine of up to $150 from troopers who are patrolling the corridor.
  • For more

The big picture

High tech rules: The congestion is monitored by microwave and laser sensors, and transmitted to computers that determine what the toll should be.

Other lanes: Preliminary work is under way for optional toll lanes on I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties; and on I-75 through Henry County, scheduled to open by 2016. A metrowide network is planned.

Toll policy: Three-person car pools will ride free on I-85; not on I-75/I-575. Decision not yet made on I-75 in Henry County.

Sources: State Road and Tollway Authority, Georgia Department of Transportation

A national trend

Like I-85 in Gwinnett, these optional toll lanes charge an automated variable toll fee, rising and falling with congestion measured constantly by computers. Most of them started charging tolls in the past four years:

  • I-15 in San Diego
  • I-394 and I-35W in Minneapolis
  • Wash. 167 in Seattle
  • I-95 in Miami
  • I-680 in San Francisco Bay Area
  • I-15 in Salt Lake City

Other projects in California, Texas and Denver charge electronic tolls that vary by a pre-set time of day.

Source: Ginger Goodin, Texas Transportation Institute; individual project websites and reports