The State Road & Tollway Authority expects to see approximately 6,000 weekday trips on the Interstate 75 South Metro Express Lanes after six months of operation. AJC file photo

Gridlock Guy: I-75 express lanes surpass usage expectations

The Interstate 75 South Metro Express Lanes opened on Jan. 28 to much anticipation in Henry County. The 12-mile, reversible toll lanes were free for the first two weeks and now see a flat 50 cent rate to make any trip in the lanes. In the future, the lanes’ prices will change based on demand.

The State Road and Tollway Authority posts the daily and weekly number of travelers in the lanes on PeachPass.com. The first week saw 24,017 trips in the lanes and the number jumped to 31,547 the second week. In fact, the single day with the most trips was Thursday, Feb. 9 when there were 6,575 trips. But these two weeks were free for any motorist with a Peach Pass (or Florida SunPass or North Carolina Quick Pass).

When SRTA inched the price up to 50 cents for any trips in the lanes the week of Feb. 11-17, the numbers dipped to 21,700. So far the week of Feb. 18-24 saw the lowest rate at 20,743. The Feb. 25 -March 3 stretch saw 26,877 lane trips, the second-highest number. The Daytona 500 and Atlanta Motor Speedway NASCAR races, plus college spring break traffic probably added to the increase this most recent week.

SRTA hasn’t yet rolled out its actual price controls, which will be variable and higher-priced, based upon the demand in the lanes. Once the lanes get more expensive, the numbers could erode even more. But at the same time, as more people become familiar with the lanes being there and sign up for Peach Passes, more people will use the lanes.

SRTA did see a large increase in the amount of subscribers to the lanes. They say that almost 14,000 people added Peach Pass accounts in January, compared to just over 6,700 in December. Commuters can also use Peach Passes in the Interstate 85 HOT lanes in Gwinnett and DeKalb and will be able to use them on the I-75 Northwest Metro Express Lanes in 2018.

“Overall, we have been pleased with the usage of the lanes so far,” SRTA Director of External Affairs Matt Markham says. “We have expected all along that it will take time for commuters in that corridor to get comfortable with a new travel option and so we know that it will take time for the usage to grow. The projections from our initial analysis were that we would expect to see approximately 6,000 weekday trips after six months of operation. We already appear to be more than halfway towards meeting that projection after one month of operation, so we are encouraged by the trend.”

So SRTA is already tracking toward surpassing their usage goals in the new lanes. One reason numbers seem meager, is simply because the need for them hasn’t materialized very often. Most rush hour delays are not bad in Henry County. But construction and spring break travel delays are and that is when commuters will likely really put them to the test. And one thing boosting the numbers is the amount of times HERO units move through the lanes, which does count in their totals. Consider that, when weighing their success.

For the second weekend in a row, SRTA is leaving the lanes southbound. This is due to anticipated spring break volume and scheduled construction on I-75. They will flush the lanes and reverse them back to the northbound direction at 4 a.m. Monday.

The jury is still out as to whether the lanes are necessary and are improving traffic. The conditions simply have not been in place to stress test them. Remember that when the I-85 HOT lanes debuted, the numbers were dramatically low. We can revisit this in a few months and get a better look at how the lanes impact this area that gets severe summer travel congestion.

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