For new I-85 toll lane, signs might not help much

HOV toll lanes — now dubbed “express lanes” — are a brand-new concept in Georgia.

If the state wants drivers to catch on, maybe a dollar sign would say it better than a peach on the road signs, considering early reaction to them.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution took black-and-white drawings of some of the road signs that will identify the toll lane and warn non-toll drivers to get out, and showed them to 10 drivers who use I-85. Most of the 10 had no idea what they meant.

Some thought they indicated a passing lane. Some thought they were for drivers who drive fast, or for express buses.

The problem, they said: Nowhere on most of the signs is there “toll” or any indication that money will be required.

Instead, the signs have a picture of a peach next to the words “pass” and “only.” That’s because the logo of Georgia’s express lane transponder is the “Peach Pass.”

“It’s not telling you what you can do, it’s just telling you the name,” said Frank Russell, a salesman from Norcross, after a reporter explained “Peach Pass” to him. “ ‘Pass’ to me means I can use the lane to go past slower traffic.’”

Shardel Jackson, an assistant manager at Arby’s, flinched with confusion when she saw it. However, she ranked the idea of the toll lane where she could find mobility when driving alone as “awesome.”

State officials note that they’re planning a major ad campaign to familiarize residents with the Peach Pass. But a basic premise for interstate sign design is that drivers who are not familiar with the area should be able to understand the sign. I-85 is a major corridor from Alabama to Virginia.

According to the design plans, only one sign before the northbound toll lane uses the word “toll,” warning of the upcoming Spaghetti Junction I-285 exit and saying a toll lane begins in 2,000 feet. No “toll” sign precedes the toll lane in the other direction, according to the plans. At the end of the project, the signs are clearer, saying the toll lane is ending.

State officials point out that the federal sign manual requires use of the toll system logo. But the manual uses a clearer example: the logo “TollPass.” Georgia opted not to spell out its logo. A spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, Doug Hecox, said Georgia could use the word “toll” if it wanted.

The Peach Pass signs — giving no indication of a toll — will appear starting two miles from the toll lane, then along the toll lane itself. Less than half a mile before the toll lane starts, there will be a big price sign giving drivers who see it little doubt that payment is involved. There are about five of these signs in each direction.

However, said George Samaras, a manufacturing company owner who drives I-85 and lives in Tucker, at that point, “Can you imagine five cars trying to move over?”

Samaras knew what the signs probably meant, because he had been closely following the project (and was hopping mad at the idea). One other of the 10 drivers understood right away it must mean a toll pass, because it reminded him of toll passes he saw in Florida.

State officials noted that they have held public meetings in the I-85 corridor, informing nearly 600 attendees about the project, and are planning more.