HOT lane concerns dominate town hall meeting

Frustration over new I-85 high-occupancy toll lanes boiled over at a Monday night town meeting in Buford as opponents angrily confronted state transportation officials about the restricted lanes that opened Oct. 3.

The Gwinnett County Republican Party, which organized the meeting as an opportunity for residents to meet elected officials, struggled to maintain order while many in the crowd of several hundred people vented their frustration.

“Why don’t you admit it was about raising revenue and not about traffic!” one man shouted.

When the moderator tried to stick with written audience questions, another shouted, “We have freedom of speech!”

Some residents walked out. One man was escorted by a sheriff’s deputy.

Monday night’s hearing was the latest evidence that the HOT lanes are unpopular with many local residents. People circulated petitions and handed out bumper stickers to further demonstrate their discontent.

Only drivers who register and have a Peach Pass can use the 15.5 miles of HOT lanes in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties; they’re free for transit vehicles and carpools with three or more people.

Solo drivers and two-person carpools pay an electronic toll that initially ranged from 10 cents per mile to 90 cents per mile. The greater the congestion, the higher the toll.

Proponents say the rising fuel efficiency of cars has led to diminishing returns on gas taxes, a mainstay of road construction funding. And they say HOT lanes can provide a quicker commute to people in a hurry -- if they’re willing to pay the price.

But angry commuters have complained the lanes are too costly and too confusing to use. They say traffic has gotten worse in the free lanes because so few people are using the HOT lanes.

Less than a week after the lanes opened, Gov. Nathan Deal announced plans to slash tolls in an effort to boost the number of drivers using them. Originally, the maximum toll for driving the entire 15.5 miles was $5.50; now it’s $3.05.

Deal also pledged to seek more access points for the lanes and to ask the federal government to allow two-person carpools free access. But Deal’s office has said the lanes can’t be scrapped because of requirements that came with the federal money that helped pay for them.

That hasn’t stopped Howard Rodgers of Lawrenceville from seeking signatures for a petition calling for state officials to stop or suspend the HOT lane program. He said he’s gathered more than 2,500 signatures so far, including more than 30 at Monday night’s meeting.

“My commute’s gone from about 45 minutes to about two hours,” Rodgers said. “That’s an hour and a half I don’t have with my kids.”

“I don’t think they have eased congestion any,” said Robert Davidson of the Hamilton Mill area. “If anything, they’ve added to it.”

Several public officials told the crowd their negative opinions of the HOT lanes have been heard.

“I think there’s some problems,” said state Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth. “I think we can work it out.”