Officials haven’t set an official opening date for the new Northwest Metro Express Lanes, a reversible tolling system along new overpasses on I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties, yet. But the targeted opening is still the end of the summer. Plans have been in place for years to improve the northwest corridor, and GDOT and SRTA got tasked with taking a big swing at it.
The lanes will resemble the lanes that opened along I-75 in January 2017 in Henry County. They will run in the preferred rush hour directions in the weekday mornings, will close at 11 a.m. to be “flushed” of errant cars and debris, then re-open mid-afternoon for PM drive. Not just building the lanes, but training first responders and testing the equipment are big steps that need completing before they open.
Smilin’ Mark McKay brought in GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry and SRTA/Xpress Executive Director Chris Tomlinson to the News 95.5/AM750 WSB studios Wednesday, for a special “Peach Pass” edition of Atlanta’s Evening News. They were enlightening, to say the least.
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“We’re trying to take a system approach,” Tomlinson stated, referencing the news that had just broken about SRTA’s new uniform pricing system for all Peach Pass lanes in Georgia. SRTA has set a minimum rate for the lanes during times of dynamic pricing at $.10 per mile. They dynamically adjust the lane rates, based on traffic demand, so to maintain the express lanes’ average speed at 35-45 mph. In the overnight hours total trips will not cost more than $.50 in any express lane in Georgia.
In the Northwest Metro Express Lanes system, there are 30 miles of new lanes, but the longest trip can be 20 miles, whether a trip starts on I-75 or I-575. Trips begin on I-75 from the Hickory Grove Road access point (north of Wade Green Road) and I-575 from Sixes Road. With the new pricing structure, the minimum cost for a full trip in the lanes is $2.00 during rush hour or another high demand time, when dynamic pricing is in place.
The new Peach Pass lanes in Cobb and Cherokee counties also provide new access to the freeway from some roads that had just been overpasses. “We have 10 new access points; five of those on I-75 are interchanges that are at different locations than the interchanges today,” McMurry explained with his big Peach Pass system map spread about in the WSB Radio studio. Those new I-75 interchanges are at Hickory Grove Road, Big Shanty Road, Roswell Road, Terrell Mill Road and Akers Mill Road. PeachPass.com shows the full map and explains this in more detail. McMurry sees the benefit of these new tied-in roads, “Those are new interchanges that will give you direct access from those streets, directly into the express lanes.” This means a Peach Pass user who lives off of Hickory Grove Road in Acworth can pay a small amount and save several minutes on their commute by driving straight onto I-75.
“This is the largest of this type of project that Georgia has ever seen and has the ability to move the needle on mobility and congestion like we haven’t seen in Metro Atlanta in a long time,” McMurry said. The most crowded part of I-75 in Cobb County — near Windy Hill Road and I-285 — sees 290,000 vehicles per day. He also noted that this is just about the biggest single express lanes project in the nation; crews began work in 2015.
The lanes also aid mass transit in providing a more reliable, faster trip for the Xpress and GRTA buses that before had used the main through lanes. The first similar lanes, the I-85 HOT lanes between Suwanee and Chamblee in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties, have a federal mandate that includes a certain portion of funding actually going to public and mass transit. The newer lanes do not have that restriction, but are built to move more people faster, both McMurry and Tomlinson said.
And more Peach Pass toll lanes are coming. “We are eventually going to have the lanes across the top half of I-285 [anywhere north of I-20]. There will be system-to-system connectivity, where you can go from one to the other,” Tomlinson said. Though each new batch of lanes may be slightly different, the goal is to make driving in them seamless, especially as Georgia builds more. GA-400 will also seem them in the near future. This proliferation influenced SRTA’s standardizing the pricing system.
Some quirks exist. The I-85 lanes in Gwinnett and DeKalb allow exemptions for carpoolers with three or more passengers and certain fuel-efficient vehicles. The current I-75 lanes in Henry County and the new ones northwest of town will not. Law enforcement/first responder vehicles and public transit are the only ones exempt from being charged in these lanes.
Speaking of I-85, GDOT is extending the current HOT lanes on I-85 in Gwinnett from Old Peachtree Road to Hamilton Mill Road, a project set for completion by the end of 2018. This extension took less time that the I-75 and I-575 lanes, because GDOT could simply construct them in the median. “What most people don’t realize is there also is a general purpose lane in that,” McMurry said.
The I-85 HOT lanes that opened in the fall of 2011 took over an existing HOV lane. The new lanes are additional and will add one toll lane and one regular lane in each direction. This should be a big boon for I-85, especially when it files down to two lanes north of the Mall of Georgia.
Many people oppose toll lanes, because they are seen as only benefiting the rich. But truthfully, they are added capacity to crowded roads and they are controlled by the pricing. Even those who don’t use the new lanes will gain the benefit from not having to drive share the road with the people that pay. Keeping a Peach Pass in the back pocket (really, on the windshield) for an especially testy commute is not a bad card to have if it needs playing.
Listen to the full podcast with McMurry, Tomlinson, McKay and Turnbull, to learn more about the new Northwest Metro Express Lanes, the I-85 HOT lane extension, and how the Peach Pass works.