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HOT lanes get a cool reception
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Forsyth County News


Forsyth Countians forced to weave their way through a daily commute on Ga. 400 to reach jobs in Atlanta have long bemoaned the necessity of stopping at a toll booth and tossing in some change. A few years down the road, they may wish life could be so simple again.

While the current controversy over the I-85 HOT lanes running through Gwinnett and DeKalb counties may not seem to have much immediate meaning for those who don’t travel that stretch of road, the day may come when it impacts every driver in the metro region in some fashion.

State government and transportation officials see the HOT lane concept as a prototype that ultimately will be implemented throughout the metro area. Over the next 30 years, the state plans to bring more than 150 miles of interstates into the HOT lane program, and eventually to convert all HOV lanes to HOT lanes. Portions of I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties are next  to be converted.

That being the case, we can only hope they get the bugs worked out of the system before expanding it beyond the existing 15 mile stretch.

For those who don’t know, HOT has replaced HOV as the newest, latest effort to improve traffic congestion. In the 1990s, transportation officials thought the implementation of HOV lanes would encourage drivers to carpool, eliminating the one-passenger-per-car mentality that is pervasive on the metro area’s interstate system and in doing so reduce traffic.

Now HOV has been replaced with HOT, a toll lane concept built around high-tech electronics that make it possible to vary the cost of using the lane depending on existing levels of congestion. It’s a concept that makes the quaint idea of dropping quarters in a basket sound like fun.

In place for a month now, the HOT lanes have proven to be extremely unpopular. Motorists have complained loud and long that they are too expensive, too complicated, and are making traffic worse instead of better. Many have suggested that implementation of the HOT lanes has been motivated by the state’s need for revenue rather than any hope of reducing traffic congestion. Worse, the lanes are seeing little traffic while non-toll lanes are more congested than ever.

Obviously it’s too early to make an intelligent assessment of the plan’s long-term viability. Gov. Nathan Deal already has lowered rates, transportation officials are looking at ways to make the lanes a better option, and complaints are being heard.

Some other metro areas in the country have similar programs that reportedly work well, so there is some hope. But some metro toll programs have also proven to be big failures, resulting in bankruptcies and foreclosures.

Certainly the program has gotten off to a rocky start, with some motorists reporting that their daily commutes have more than doubled in time since implementation of the program.

Adding to the misery is the fact that the HOT lanes were built under a federally financed program, and changes have to be approved at the federal level rather than just under the gold dome of the state Capitol.

For now, HOT is a headache for 15 miles of I-85, but eventually it is expected to be interwoven throughout traffic patterns on interstates all around Atlanta. Let’s hope most of the more pressing concerns are addressed before expansion plans become reality for the rest of the region.