In just a few months, a final contract will be signed to build the most expensive road construction project in state history — $840 million optional toll lanes on I-75/I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties.
But for a project with so much impact for a corridor that carries some 200,000 vehicles a day, it has captured surprisingly little public attention.
Only 10 public comments about proposed bidders were received on Georgia Department of Transportation’s website last month. Fewer than 50 area residents attended each of two public information sessions in July.
And if recent interviews conducted around both counties are any indication, many who will be affected still don’t know about the massive project that’s been dubbed the Northwest Corridor. When told about the plans, a majority of drivers who spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week were skeptical they would use the new lanes.
However, officials believe that once people get used to the idea and fully understand it, they will embrace it as they have the once-controversial HOT Lane on I-85.
Construction on the 30 miles of reversible toll lanes is slated to start late next year and finish by the spring of 2018. Two new reversible lanes will hug the west side of I-75 between I-285 and I-575. A single reversible lane also will be added in the I-75 center median north ofthe I-575 interchange extending to Hickory Grove Road, and on I-575 from where it branches from I-75 out to Sixes Road. A barrier will separate the lanes from the main road.
Lois Brett shot a quizzical look at her husband, Nigel, when asked about the project outside of the Woodstock Public Library, where the couple was heading with their 3-year-old and 5-month-old sons on Wednesday. She thought the design sounded “weird.”
“Hadn’t heard of it,” Brett said. “I would not pay to use it unless there was a wreck and I had to, because I had a screaming baby in the back seat.”
Rachel Nash, a stay-at-home mom from Kennesaw, said she heard something about toll lanes coming to I-75.
“I don’t dig it,” Nash said. “I would rather see public transportation come up here.”
Over at Kennesaw State University, students interviewed were unaware of the project and seemed resistant to the idea.
Best friends Jasmine Neville, 18, and Tia Mitchem, 18, both of Snellville, were on the way to meet their KSU admissions counselor. Both said they couldn’t afford to pay the toll.
The toll range isn’t set yet, but officials estimate that drivers will pay 10 to 90 cents per mile to bypass slower traffic in the general-purpose lanes. The amount of the toll will rise and fall based on traffic volume.
“That’s my food money,” Neville said. “Maybe one day I could (afford it), if I had a really good job…”
State transportation officials have acknowledged it can be a challenge getting the community to buy in on the concept. However, toll lanes are the state’s principal plan for congestion relief in metro Atlanta. Area voters last year rejected a penny sales tax to fund transportation projects, and officials say there isn’t enough money being collected from gas taxes alone to widen the interstates without adding a toll.
The conversion of an HOV lane to an optional toll lane (called a HOT Lane) on I-85 from the Perimeter to Old Peachtree Road initially caused an uproar when it opened in 2011. So few people were using it that the state had to drastically cut the rate during off-peak times to 1 cent per mile.
Now, though, the public is using it so often that the state had to hike the price to travel the whole 16-mile stretch to record-setting $7 one morning in June just to keep the traffic flowing. The average cost for that trip it is around $1.50, according to GDOT.
The area on I-75 just south of I-575 is one of the most congested in the region, carrying about 200,000 vehicles a day.
Those who will feel the most relief are those who can pay to get it. According to an analysis of a GDOT traffic forecast conducted in 2011, drivers who use the optional toll lanes could cut their commute times by more than half during rush-hour.
Drivers in the free lanes headed from Atlanta to Cobb on I-75 in the afternoon will see only a four-minute time savings; headed southbound in the morning they would save less than one minute. Drivers in the free lanes with a reverse commute — northbound in the morning and southbound in the afternoon — could see trip times worsen by a fraction of a minute.
The lanes may eventually form an extensive network of optional toll lanes along major highways aimed at easing congestion in the metro Atlanta region. Already in the pipeline is a northern extension of the I-85 HOT lane with a new lane, and a new optional toll lane along I-75 in Henry County.
State transportation officials are also studying the top end of I-285 and Ga. 400 north of I-285 to determine whether constructing new toll lanes there would be worthwhile.
In focus groups that GDOT has held to gauge reaction to the Northwest Corridor, GDOT Commissioner Keith Golden said people often started out opposed to the project. But after officials explained that using the toll lanes is the driver’s choice, and that the lanes will offer a swift, reliable way to get to a child’s day care or sporting event when it really matters, all they wanted to know is how soon the lanes could be built, Golden said.
“They just needed to understand it, to have someone to walk them through it,” Golden said.
Attitudes toward the toll lane seemed warmer farther south at the Parkway Center office complex off South Marietta Parkway and I-75.
Amike Campbell, a customer service representative, welcomed the option of using the new lanes. Especially if it meant she could bypass the gridlock on her weekday commute to her home in Kennesaw or the snarled traffic she fights on I-575 to do weekend shopping.
“It’s horrible,” Campbell said. “I would definitely use (the lanes).”
Laurel McNeeley, a benefits coordinator, said her hour-long commute to Acworth isn’t bothersome enough to merit paying for a quicker drive.
“I think we could use our taxpayer money somewhere else,” she said.
Local government leaders’ attitudes have been more welcoming.
Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee says the project will benefit all of the county and region by making it a more attractive area for redevelopment.
“I am ecstatic, pleased as punch,” said Lee. “They can’t make these moves fast enough for us.”
Cherokee County Commission Chairman Buzz Ahrens said he has not heard any negative feedback about the project. He views it as an economic boon to the area and a way to alleviate traffic that has worsened with the opening earlier this month of a new, 90-store outlet mall at Exit 9 off I-575.
“It’s all positive,” Ahrens said. “The only negative to it is that it’ll take a while to get done.”