State patrol increasing presence on I-75 and I-85

If you’re driving on I-85 in Gwinnett County and keep seeing blue lights in your rear view window, don’t worry: You’re not paranoid.

Every “mile or two” along the Gwinnett corridor during peak traffic times, there’s a state trooper watching, said Cpl. Travis Rinehart, assistant commander of Post 51 off Pleasant Hill Road in Duluth. The story is the same on I-75 through Cobb County, where the Georgia State Patrol took over traffic enforcement in late November, issuing 21,012 citations — about 70 per day — thus far this year.

In April, troopers began patrolling I-85 in Gwinnett, where they have issued 11,296 citations as of September 30. The GSP is now covering virtually all interstate traffic in the metro area.

But rather than papering the roadways with tickets, the increased presence of troopers is more about alleviating traffic than generating revenues, said Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Natalie Dale.

“I know what people’s first thought is, but we’re in the business of keeping roads clear and traffic moving,” Dale said. Putting troopers on the road allows them to respond quicker to accidents while freeing up the local agencies, such as the Cobb and Gwinnett police departments, to focus on law enforcement off the interstates.

The early returns on the project, coordinated by the GSP and G-DOT, are mixed. The plan set ambitious goals for accident clearance — under 20 minutes, on average — but a snapshot of morning and afternoon rush hours taken on two days in September on I-75 showed the clearance times ranging from 22 minutes to 56 minutes. On I-85, a similar snapshot study over two days in July showed clearance times ranging from 26 to 38 minutes.

Troopers respond to an average of about 40 accidents a day on the Cobb I-75 and Gwinnett I-85 corridors, two of the most heavily traveled urban highways in the Southeast.

Commuters have noticed the troopers’ presence, often with a massive brake-pedal response.

“The multiple speed traps have had an overall negative effect on traffic flow as drivers often slow their vehicles to below the speed limit when passing parked troopers,” said Scott Kay, who commutes from Vinings to Kennesaw. “During rush hour, they have the opposite of their intended impact. Since I’m going the opposite way of heavy traffic, I often see the parking lot effect created after a trooper stops a speeder.”

Though the average of roughly 2,100 tickets per month in Cobb may seem high, there has been a minimal bump in revenues to the county. Cobb government spokesman Robert Quigley estimated the county will collect about $6.6 million in fines this year, about the same as collected in 2012 but considerably less than 2011, when drivers contributed a little more than $8 million to county coffers.

Similar numbers aren’t yet available from Gwinnett, where the project began only six months ago.

But both counties are seeing benefits in other ways.

“When you have a major accident on the interstate, that takes up a lot of manpower,” said Gwinnett police spokesman Jake Smith. “Typically these accidents are going to take an hour to clear and involve multiple officers at a time.”

Cobb police spokesman Dana Pierce estimated as many as nine officers a day are freed up to handle county police work with the GSP handling I-75.

“That’s a huge impact to the public,” Pierce said. “The GSP has been very helpful to us.”

The project was made possible through federal grants used to train troopers. In Gwinnett, the vast majority of the 32 troopers patrolling I-85 and Ga. 316 are fresh out of trooper school. On weekdays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., at least half of those 32 troopers will be stationed on both roadways.

“People are seeing a difference,” said Rinehart, adding he’s often stopped by local residents asking about the increased trooper presence. “I try to tell them that’s a good thing.”

Some commuters aren’t so easily convinced.

“I’ve been held up in traffic solely because a trooper was sitting on the side of the road or in a merging lane,” said Renee Key, who travels daily from Roswell to Union City. “I get that speeding is against the law and can endanger lives, but there’s already enough traffic during rush hour without the help of state troopers.”

Dale stresses the program is not permanent.

“We’re still monitoring the affects and, most importantly, how it helps us to keep traffic moving with a focus on quick response times,” she said.

Regardless, the troopers aren’t going away.

“How is this anything but a good thing?” said commuter Martin Fisher. “Trooper presence means people actually pay attention to their speed and aggressive driving, making the roads a safer place for everyone. Seriously, what kind of argument could be made against this?”

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