Southbound commuters on I-75 try the new Northwest Corridor Express Lanes as traffic backs up in Marietta Monday Morning. The lanes are free for the first two weeks (you still need a Peach Pass). After that, the minimum toll on the lanes for most of the day is 10 cents a mile. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Atlanta traffic: Rush hour a breeze on new toll lanes

For much of Monday morning’s rush hour, southbound traffic on I-75 in Cobb County was stop-and-go madness as motorists approached the Perimeter.

But not for drivers in the new Northwest Corridor Express Lanes. Peach Pass holders were granted access to miles of open road, allowing them to pass cars in the regular lanes like they were standing still – which, at times, they were.

The Georgia Department of Transportation opened the new toll lanes on Saturday, but Monday was the first chance for drivers to try them under rush-hour conditions. Some commuters liked what they found.

Brooke Vann of Holly Springs called the new lanes a morning “lifesaver.”

“I leave Sixes Road at 6:30 each day,” she said. “What normally takes me over an hour took me 24 minutes. I got an hour of my life back!”

The State Road and Tollway Authority estimated drivers took more than 11,000 trips on the new lanes Saturday and Sunday, plus another 5,000 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday. The agency also took more than 1,100 orders for Peach Passes Monday morning.

State officials expect traffic to pick up in coming months as more motorists decide that free-flowing traffic is worth paying for.

The Northwest Corridor Express lanes stretch 30 miles along I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties. The lanes are reversible, carrying traffic into Atlanta in the morning and out of town in the afternoon. They’ll close for a few hours mid-day to allow the state to safely reverse traffic.

The new lanes are part of a growing network of toll lanes that offer relief from traffic congestion — for a price.

The minimum toll will be 10 cents a mile for most of the day. Overnight (roughly midnight to 5 a.m.), the cost is just 50 cents per trip, regardless of the length of the trip.

There is no maximum toll. But state officials expect cost to be minimal at first and to increase over time.

GDOT says adding “free” lanes to I-75, I-285 and other freeways wouldn’t help much because they tend to fill up as soon as they open. But the state can “manage” congestion on the express lanes by raising tolls as traffic increases. The idea is to raise tolls high enough to discourage some people from using the lanes and keep traffic moving at 45 mph.

“What the express lane system offers is a reliable trip time,” said GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale. “You’re either going to pay with your time, sitting in a general purpose lane, or you’re going to pay a fee. You’re going to pay that toll to get in that express lane and get that reliable trip time.”

Already, the state operates such lanes on I-85 in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties and on I-75 in Clayton and Henry counties. It will open a 10-mile extension of the I-85 lanes later this year. In coming years, it plans to build toll lanes up Ga. 400 and along the top half of the Perimeter.

To use the lanes, motorists must have a Peach Pass, which allows the State Road and Tollway Authority to assess the toll electronically. But the Northwest Corridor lanes are free for the first two weeks.

“We want you to use the system free of charge, so you know what to expect,” Dale said. “From that point, you can decide if it’s something you want to use daily, weekly, monthly or not at all.”

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