Imagine cruising into Atlanta at rush hour on lanes that seem built just for you and a handful of friends.
There are so few drivers that you sometimes imagine this stretch of road was built just for you. Meanwhile, on your right and left – separated from you by barriers – are thousands of vehicles moving just as fast, but braking and passing and otherwise dealing with the hassles of sharing the road with others.
That pretty well describes the experience of driving the new I-75 South Metro Express Lanes in Clayton and Henry counties Monday morning. The two lanes, which stretch from McDonough Road to Stockbridge Highway, opened Saturday. But Monday was their first test at rush hour.
One motorist gave them a tentative thumbs up.
“I was a little worried that it … might be confusing,” said McDonough resident John Koth. “But it was very easy to get on. Everything was very clear and clearly marked.”
State officials say the new $226 million express toll lanes are the future of highway transportation in metro Atlanta.
Express toll lanes already are in use on I-85 in Gwinnett County, and those are being extended. Work is about two-thirds complete on another 30 miles of such lanes on I-75 adn I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties. Eventually, the north end of I-285 also will have express toll lanes, as will Ga. 400 in Fulton and Forsyth counties.
The South Metro Express Lanes are reversible – they carry northbound traffic into Atlanta in the morning and southbound traffic out of town in the afternoon. Only motorists with a Peach Pass can use them.
Though they’re free for the first two weeks, afterward you’ll pay 10 cents to 90 cents per mile for the privilege, with a minimum price of 50 cents for any trip. The heavier the traffic, the higher the toll. The idea is to set the price high enough to discourage everyone from using them and keep traffic in the express lanes moving at a minium speed of 45 mph.
They’re billed as a way for motorists to save time, if they’re willing to pay. But on Monday it didn’t seem anyone was saving much time. Northbound traffic on I-75 was moving pretty fast.
Still, fewer cars meant fewer hassles for those who chose to use the express lanes.
Koth entered the lanes at Jonesboro Road and spent about eight minutes on them. Normally it takes him about an hour to get to his job as plant manager at Auto-Chlor in Hapeville. He figures the express lanes only trimmed a minute or two off his ride Monday.
State officials say it will take time for motorists to become comfortable using the lanes. Initially, they say tolls could be as little at 10 or 15 cents a mile. As more people use them, they believe 35 cents a mile – or about $4 one way to ride the full 11.5-mile stretch – will be typical at rush hour.
The lanes close for about two hours at about 11:30 a.m. each day to prepare for the afternoon rush. After ensuring the lanes are clear of traffic and debris, state operators reopen them in the early afternoon for southbound traffic. The process is repeated around midnight to prepare for the morning commute.
On Monday afternoon GDOT spokeswoman Jill Goldberg said there have been no accidents or other problems on the lanes since they opened.
“The lanes have operated exactly as planned,” she said. “Overall, traffic did seem to be lighter all across the metro area this morning. Vehicles did use the express lanes even with the traffic flowing well in the regular travel lanes.”
Goldberg said it will be about a week before GDOT has statistics on how many motorists have used the lanes.