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ONE-ON-ONE: Deal says Express Lanes are 'learning experience'

10:59 PM, Oct 7, 2011   |    comments
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Gov. Nathan Deal calls toll lanes a "learning experience"

ATLANTA -- It did not take very long to figure out there was a problem with I-85's new express lanes, Gov. Nathan Deal said Friday.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: I-85 Express Lanes

Just a day earlier, the governor announced major changes to the fledgling program. They include changing the toll formula, adding access points and a request to reduce vehicle occupancy requirements from 3 to 2.

In a sit down interview with 11Alive's Paul Crawley on Friday, Gov. Deal was candid about trying to improve the project that left Peach Pass drivers with drastically shorter commutes, and those without it, fuming as they idled in traffic.

"I traveled in the lanes myself," Deal said. "It was obviously not achieving the goal of shifting traffic into the accelerating lane. It was probably having the opposite effect."

The State Road and Tollways Authority extolled statistics showing Peach Passes cut drive time in some cases by as much as 30 minutes. At the same time they were adjusting the algorithm that determined the cost of tolls as it became apparent that few people were using the lanes.

"One of the things we have heard a lot of is that people are just opposed to paying for something that had once been free," Crawley noted.

"Well, of course that was my position, as well," Deal said. "But that was a decision that had already been put pretty much in the hopper before I became governor."

The project may have been planned before Deal took office, but as Chairman of the toll authority, he can and has ordered changes.

"Is this something that you think might have been foreseen, had they talked to other states, other cities that have used this?" Crawley asked.

"I think they looked at the other states who've used this model and I think they were, I think, surprised by the fact that they did not have the same results being achieved," the Governor said.

"I am told, however, that even in those states that have these lanes and have used them successfully that it has taken a longer period of time for start up, for people to get accustomed to what they are," he added.

"You think perhaps after this experiment, and like you said, you were opposed to it initially, that maybe we shouldn't try this anywhere else?" asked Crawley.

"Well, obviously this is a learning experience and I think the learning experience will be transferred to any future project such as the ones that are proposed," the Governor said.

He was referring to a proposal to put similar HOT lanes on I-75 and I-575 northwest of Atlanta.

Unlike the I-85 project, those would be newly built lanes, not toll conversions of existing HOV lanes.

The Governor also said the toll authority's hands are tied somewhat by federal regulations since those strings come with federal funds used on the project.

For instance, they require posting the highest possible toll on the HOT lane signs, even though that's not necessarily the amount Peach Pass drivers will end up being charged.

"I'm hopeful that people, once they get that first bill, those who have the passes, I think they will see that the charges are probably not as high as maybe had been anticipated because the federal government...requires you to post the highest rate," he said.

Deal is hoping the feds will grant a waiver on the rule that at least 3 people have to be in a Peach Pass vehicle to ride for free.

He wants that lowered to 2, but he has no idea how long it will take the U.S. Department of Transportation to respond to his request.

 

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