Still Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said the South Metro Express Lanes have done exactly what they were designed to do – keep traffic moving.
“The average driver may not feel it,” McMurry said. “But you can see it in the data.”
It may take more than data to convince many commuters that toll lanes are the solution to the some of the world's worst traffic, as Georgia is betting.
GDOT officials say simply adding "free" lanes won't solve traffic congestion – they fill up almost as soon as they open because of pent-up demand.
Instead, the state is trying to "manage" traffic with fluctuating tolls on express lanes that are open only to motorists with a Peach Pass. The heavier the traffic, the higher the toll.
The idea is to discourage enough people from using the lanes that traffic in them keeps moving at least 45 mph. That guarantees a relatively predictable commute – if you're willing to pay 10 cents to 90 cents a mile.
In addition to I-75, there are 16 miles of toll lanes on I-85 northeast of Atlanta. This year, GDOT will open 30 miles of toll lanes on I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties, plus a 10-mile extension of the I-85 lanes.
Eventually, express lanes will stretch along the northern half of the Perimeter and up Ga. 400.
State officials say the first year of the I-75 South Metro Express Lanes shows their plan is working.
The $226 million lanes stretch from McDonough Road to Stockbridge Highway. They are reversible, carrying traffic north into Atlanta in the morning and south out of town in the afternoon.
About 9,000 to 11,000 vehicles use the I-75 express lanes each day, according to GDOT. At morning rush hour, traffic moves about 10-15 mph faster in the express lanes than in the regular lanes. In the afternoon, express lane traffic often moves more than 20 mph faster.
But GDOT says traffic in the regular lanes also has improved.
Southbound afternoon traffic in the regular lanes has moved a few miles an hour faster in recent weeks than it did during the same period a year ago, before the express lanes opened. Morning northbound traffic was less than 1 mph faster.
It’s not much. But rush-hour traffic slowed 2-3 mph over the last year on metro Atlanta highways where there are no express lanes, according to GDOT. That shows the express lanes are “a much-needed solution to significantly congested corridors,” agency spokesman Scott Higley.
Allison Coulter of Tucker is sold. She uses the I-85 lanes daily and saves 10 to 15 minutes each morning. She’s also used the I-75 lanes for trips to Macon and Florida.
Coulter said she doesn’t mind paying a toll for a simple reason: “I don’t like sitting in traffic.”
Neither does Lawrenceville resident Bill Huttinga, who travels I-75 south of Atlanta regularly. Still, he considers the new express lanes “a total waste of money.”
“Before they started (construction), there was three lanes jammed with traffic both ways,” Huttinga said. “After four years and hundreds of millions of dollars, there is three lanes jammed with traffic both ways and two lanes in the center with nobody driving in them.”
State officials have heard complaints about the toll lanes. But Chris Tomlinson, executive director of the State Road and Tollway Authority, expects growing acceptance and steady use of the toll lanes as more open.
“They’re there for those who need the relief,” Tomlinson said.
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