I-85 HOT lane cool at start

Georgia's new optional toll lane on I-85 in Gwinnett County got off to a slow start Monday, as some commuters eyed the new system warily or said they didn't need it.

The toll traffic moved at a good clip, but from all appearances there wasn't much of it.

The $60 million lane is a first for Georgia. The state is planning to build more throughout Georgia's interstate highway system over the next 30 years, a move that could transform metro Atlanta commuting. State planners have given up on building -- and funding -- enough lanes for free-flowing traffic for everyone. Instead, optional toll lanes will be used to give those willing to pay a choice.

For those who chose to pay Monday the former HOV lane did its job in its inaugural rush hour.  The toll lane was about 33 minutes faster than the regular lanes during the worst congestion from 7:30 a.m. to 8:45 a.m., said State Road and Tollway Authority director Gena Evans.

The toll fee,  which rises and falls with congestion in order to keep the lane free-flowing, was $5.50 at its highest price for the whole 15-mile trip, Evans said, or about 35 cents per mile. That price was posted at 8:10 a.m. and remained for more than an hour.

"It’s way too early to declare a success or a failure, but they did operate exactly like we anticipated," Evans said. "So we are frankly very excited about the travel time savings you saw this morning."

Evans said traffic data would not be ready for a couple of days, and she did not yet have revenue figures .

Randall Guensler, a Georgia Tech professor working on the traffic research, said that it would take time to sift through the data on the toll lane traffic, but "from observation it was fairly lightly traveled." He and Evans said that was to be expected as people got used to the idea and tried it out for the first time.

On the regular traffic lanes, however, some drivers said they found the commute a bear, especially in the northern stretches of the project near where the toll traffic begins.

Evans did not confirm that regular traffic was worse than usual in spots, but acknowledged, "we expected some travel confusion" as people get used to the lanes. In addition, she said, similar projects in other cities showed tentative use of the toll lane at first, followed by increasing traffic, all of which takes a while to stabilize.

The toll  lane, which allows in solo drivers, worked for Bob Ulrich.

"It went really well," said Ulrich, who commutes from Dacula to Norcross as a vice president for sales and marketing. He had applied for a Peach Pass for occasional use, though he didn't plan to use it right away. But when he got on I-85 Monday, traffic was"stop and go from Sugarloaf Parkway," he said. "I was running late and I'd got a sticker and thought I'd try it." It probably shaved 20 minutes off his commute, he said.

Ulrich, who pulled off at Jimmy Carter Blvd. in his silver Audi sedan, agreed to a point with critics of the toll, which works by keeping out people who decide they can't afford it. "I think there is an issue of fairness," Ulrich said. "However, I felt that way about the HOV lane. I paid for it but I couldn't use it."

At times Monday the lane was empty. A count of traffic over a 20-minute period by an AJC staffer stuck in the regular lanes showed that at most 9 cars went by in a minute; four times, there were no cars over the course of a minute.

For many outside the toll lane, there was no upside.

Randall Stapleton, a 22 year-old pipe fitter, said Monday morning that he has no intention of driving the lane. He said he drives I-85 every day and "I don't think it's going to do anything but stop up the traffic."

Joe Robinson, 54, said it took him an hour to do a 30-minute commute Monday, and there was "hardly anybody" in the express lane. "You're taking up a whole other lane; that's making traffic go slower," he said. "All I know is if we also had that other lane for the traffic then things would go faster. That's obvious."

The toll lane opened this weekend. A spokesman for the Georgia State Patrol, Gordy Wright, said that officers had handed out about 10 warnings so far, mostly for crossing the solid double-white lines into the former HOV lane. People can only cross into or out of the toll lane at the dashed lines. After an amnesty period they'll start giving tickets.

Motorists can get fined $25 by the authority or up to $150 by the officers, for infractions from crossing the solid double lines to riding without a Peach Pass.  Even those who ride free, like three-person carpools, must be registered with a Peach Pass.

But of about 10 warnings issued so far, three were for out-of-state drivers who were in the lane without a Peach Pass.

Cynthia Branch, a Michigan resident who stopped at a Waffle House on her way back from Florida, said the road signs left her confused about whether the lane was meant simply to decrease merging from entrances and exits, or whether she could pay cash.

The road signs generally don't say "toll."  The peach-pass-only signs omit the word "Peach," substituting a picture of the Georgia peach instead, meaning those signs read "Pass Only."  Although the state has invested in an education campaign for drivers, federal sign design rules say signs on interstates should be drawn primarily for people who are not familiar with the roadway.

Asked what she thought of the lane, Branch said, "I thought I was glad I was going back to Detroit."

AJC editor Matt Kempner contributed to this article.

1 Road, 2 Speeds

Drivers who took the I-85 toll lane Monday traveled quicker but paid a price for it.

Driving 55

The express lane moved at 55 mph in the most congested part of I-85, traveling south near Pleasant Hill Road. Regular traffic lanes moved at 30 mph at the same point.

A time saver

Traveling I-85 South from Peachtree Road to Chamblee Tucker Road took about 47 minutes between 7:30 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. in regular traffic lanes Monday. The same trip took about 15 minutes in the toll lane.

Paying the price

The highest toll posted was $5.50 for a southbound trip from Old Peachtree Road to Chamblee Tucker Road; this toll rate posted from 8:10 am to 9:55 am.

The lowest toll posted going southbound and northbound for the entire distance was $1.55.