COBB COUNTY, Ga. - Since the Sept. 8th opening of the I-75 and I-575 Northwest Metro Express Lanes, drivers have seemingly taken to them like ducks to water.
The mid-Saturday debut of the nearly 30-mile stretch of toll lanes has run toll-free. But only drivers that already have a valid Peach Pass, Florida SunPass, or North Carolina Quick Pass are allowed in the brand-new lanes.
That stipulation hasn’t kept thousands from trying out the finished product of Georgia’s largest infrastructure ever.
“Preliminary review of the data for the lanes indicates an estimated 5,300 trips on opening day Saturday and nearly 6,000 trips on Sunday,” State Road and Tollway Authority’s (SRTA) Ericka Davis shared. And the numbers increased for the first rush hour test of the express lanes. “For Monday, the preliminary review indicates an estimate of 6,700 trips southbound and 7,500 during the afternoon northbound commute.” Those numbers do not include any Florida or North Carolina toll passes.
Officials at the Wednesday ribbon-cutting for the four-year, $800-plus million project said they had recorded as many as 18,000-plus daily trips in the lanes by mid-week.
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Davis said that SRTA’s numbers are ahead of schedule.
"SRTA’s goal for the number of transponders in the Northwest Corridor region was 25,000, starting July 1, 2017. We are happy to report that we met and exceeded that goal with 32,613 transponders so far. Our goal for transponders statewide during that same time frame was 62,000. We exceeded that goal as well with 85,713, so far and counting," Davis said.
SRTA has had an intensive, multi-platform ad campaign to prime the public for what it needs to know for the lanes. The commercials and the lack of toll for the first two weeks have driven results.
From the WSB Skycopter, we saw a steady stream of volume in those lanes both AM and PM drive. The lanes never got below the speed limit and enough vehicles used them that the traffic patterns on I-75 and I-575 have changed.
Both northwest freeways now get slow later in each rush hour and they slow in different areas. I-75 and I-575 also return to the speed limit earlier. In the mornings, I-75/southbound seems to slow just a tad in the 6 a.m. hour right where the new lane system begins at Hickory Grove Rd., north of Wade Green Rd. This is the only place to actually enter the lanes southbound from I-75 itself.
Every other entry point is from a surface street or I-575. Later in the morning commute, the I-75 delays seem to push forward — below Highway 5 down past the Chattahoochee River. And the inverse happens in the afternoon; the delays shift northward and are less intense than before.
I-575/southbound is lighter than normal and really only gets slow after 7:30 a.m., when the crowd from Canton and Holly Springs collects between Sixes Road (where the new lanes begin) and Highway 92 in Woodstock. I-575/northbound is also lighter than normal in the evenings.
The Monday morning commute had a weird pattern, because some other interstates were lighter than normal and a bad wreck I-575/southbound in Holly Springs also kept people off of I-75. But the other commutes through the Thursday midday have definitely been a good measure of how the new lanes have added capacity and improved the rush hour in Marietta and Kennesaw.
But judging these lanes’ success right now is not proper. If no one was using them, we would say the same thing. Analyzing the Peach Pass lanes while they are toll-free is like predicting an election based only on absentee ballots.
First, people may only be using the Northwest Metro Express Lanes because they are free. The plan is have them start charging money on Sunday, September 23rd and not at any kind of discount rate. Will drivers still use them then?
On the flip side, some drivers aren’t yet even aware that they are open or how to get a Peach Pass. As time wears on, more people will buy their transponders and start using the lanes. That then could slow the lanes down actually below the speed limit. This hasn’t been a problem on the reversible lanes in Henry County, but it has on the seven-year-old HOT lane system on I-85 in Gwinnett.
Until dynamic pricing begins on these new Peach Pass lanes, Atlantans really will not know their true success. But, so far, the returns have been great.
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