State's HOT lane request denied by feds

Car poolers feeling the burn from Georgia's new HOT lanes will have to wait for relief.

Georgia is appealing a federal decision not to let two-person car pools ride free in the high occupancy toll lanes. The state, reacting to public outcry over the new lanes, sought a waiver because the I-85 project was kick-started by a $12.5 million federal grant, which required a vehicle to have at least three people to ride free.

"The governor would like to see some accommodation for commuters with two-person car pools, even if it’s simply a reduced fare," said Brian Robinson, spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal. "The state continues to discuss the issue with federal transportation officials."

In the meantime, officials continue to work out the kinks of one of metro Atlanta's most reviled thoroughfares.

The saga started Oct. 1, when the state opened its first HOT lanes on nearly 16 miles of I-85 in metro Atlanta. Under the project, which had a budget of $60 million, the lanes in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties were converted from HOV lanes -- which had previously been free to all car poolers, with no driver-only vehicles allowed.

The goal of the new toll lanes was simple: Keep the metro area's notorious traffic flowing and open to anyone -- for a price. The amount of the toll varies, depending on how congested the road is at any given time.

Just a few days into the effort, traffic noticeably worsened in the regular lanes because so few people used the HOT lanes. That angered commuters, who railed about the lanes' cost and complexity.

State officials had predicted as much, as commuters learned the new system.

But after less than a week, Deal slashed the toll rate by more than 40 percent and pledged to ask the federal government for a waiver to let Georgia provide a free ride to two-person car pools.

In an Oct. 25 letter denying the request for the waiver, the Federal Highway Administration's Jeffrey A. Lindley said it was too early to tell if the three-person rule wasn't working. He said the state needed to look at ways to improve usage beyond just a vehicle's occupancy.

A spokeswoman for the State Road and Tollway Authority said Tuesday those discussions are under way. They include expanding the number of access points at which drivers can enter the HOT lanes. Any outcome is expected to take months, which means more heartburn for drivers.

"That's a patchwork to try to make a bad decision a little better," said metro commuter Chris Haley, who with other critics formed the Stolen Lanes coalition to oppose HOT lanes in Georgia. "These HOT lanes are not working."