Construction of new toll lanes along the top end of I-285 could create a “dead zone” in Dunwoody, and cause some property values to sink in Brookhaven, according to residents attending a Feb. 10 meeting with Georgia Department of Transportation representatives. In Sandy Springs, some residents living on Northgreen Drive were recently informed their homes are in the way of planned of toll lanes along Ga. 400 and could be part of a property taking.

GDOT program manager Tim Matthews, at front, explained at a Feb. 100 meeting the community outreach timeline to present more detailed plans on the Ga. 400 and I-285 top end toll lanes. (Dyana Bagby)

Close to 100 people packed into a classroom at the North DeKalb Cultural Arts Center in Dunwoody for the GDOT meeting hosted by the Dunwoody Homeowners Association. Residents from all three cities expressed skepticism the toll lanes, including toll lanes standing up to 30-feet high, would alleviate the notorious traffic along the busy corridors that are among the most congested in the nation. Several also expressed anger about how they believe the major traffic projects would affect their quality of life.

“You’re going to destroy every single community along I-285 and you don’t care,” Mark Jeffers angrily told GDOT representatives near the end of the approximate two-hour meeting. “You’re going to destroy our neighborhoods, our communities, our cities, so people can get to work faster?”

Jeffers lives on Brawley Circle in Brookhaven, adjacent to I-285 with a sound barrier wall to mitigate noise. Their neighborhood is across the interstate from Dunwoody’s Georgetown community.

At the beginning of the meeting, Robert Wittenstein, former DHA president, asked what the city could do to stop the planned toll lanes that would run along the Georgetown community where residents live and businesses operate, but without a sound barrier.

“This will create a dead zone that nobody will want to live near,” Wittenstein said following the lengthy GDOT presentation that has been made at several other area community groups.

“How do we get you to change your direction? How can we get you to stop … [and build] something that is beneficial and useful and is a magnet to people instead of repelling them?”

The projects are planned but nothing has been approved, according to Tim Matthews, GDOT project manager. But the process to get these project approved are well underway as part of an $11 billion statewide transportation mandate from former Gov. Nathan Deal.

Residents packed a Dunwoody Homeowners Association meeting on Feb. 10 to learn more about planned toll lanes on Ga. 400 and I-285. Click for larger view. (Dyana Bagby)

In the Perimeter Center area, plans are to add four new toll-only lanes along I-285 and Ga. 400 over the next decade. The Ga. 400 lanes also would carry a new MARTA bus rapid transit route, which requires other access points and stations. MARTA has not stated if there would be a similar bus rapid transit route along I-285 but a study commissioned by mayors and other officials along the top end is saying some kind of BRT could work.

GDOT officials say that full proposed property-taking impacts will be revealed for the Ga. 400 toll lanes at a series of meetings in February and March, with a local stop March 12 at Sandy Springs City Hall. The I-285 toll lane details could be revealed later this year. In addition, the toll lanes that will run on Ga. 400 south of North Springs MARTA Station are now considered part of the I-285 project. All plans and related property-taking could still change, GDOT says.

While plans are to stay within the existing right-of-way, GDOT said it is currently purchasing right-of-way for the toll lanes. It was revealed during the meeting that GDOT representatives met last week with some residents living on Northgreen Drive in Sandy Springs because their homes along Ga. 400 are where toll lanes could likely be built.

Northgreen Drive in Sandy Springs to the left of Ga. 400 in this Google Earth image will likely property taking for the planned toll lanes, according to GDOT officials. Construction on the toll lanes is set to start in 2021.

The east and west sides of this section of Ga. 400 near Northgreen Drive will have “significant impact” and in some cases a “total taking” from the toll lanes, GDOT’s Matthews said. The letters were sent to the Northgreen Drive residents to give them advance “warning” because red dots will be on their properties when the Ga. 400 toll lanes project is presented later this month and next month for public review, he said.

“Nobody is saying we are going to buy your house today,” Matthews said, “but we did not want you to be surprised by seeing a red dot on your parcel.”

“I’m three houses from the last house [marked for potential acquisition] … why did I not the same information they did?” asked one man.

The GDOT consultant working on right-of-way acquisition explained the people he met with are in the “potential footprint of acquisition.” Their neighbors and others will be able to see at the upcoming Ga. 400 meetings how the toll lanes would affect the entire corridor and their homes.

“You’re outside the footprint,” the consultant said.

“What’s the timeline of my neighborhood losing houses?” the man asked.

Construction on the Ga. 400 project is expected to start in 2021, he was told.

Several homeowners said their property values are likely to sink as soon as the Ga. 400 maps are out and people will start seeing where the toll lanes could go. And as word continues to get out about Ga. 400 and the I-285 top end projects, nobody is going to want to buy their homes, they added.

Noise, pollution, possible toll lanes standing up to 30-feet tall — all of these factors will devalue their homes and their quality of life, they said.

Fair market value at the time of purchase can only be made for property that would be actually purchased and not neighboring property because of how the law works, they were told.

If a property is needed to build the toll lanes, the owner will be offered fair market value based on sales in the surrounding area at the time of purchases, according to GDOT. But they acknowledged external factors, such as a toll lanes, could impact the fair market value.

Many people at the meeting asked why GDOT could not build heavy rail or even light rail up to the northern suburbs and provide commuters another way to get to work rather than driving in cars.

GDOT can only use its funding for roads, Matthews said. In 2013, GDOT and the Atlanta Regional Commission adopted toll lanes, what they call “express lanes” or “managed lanes,” as the strategy to mitigate the traffic congestion.

The toll lanes work by allowing drivers willing to pay to get out of congestion in the regular lanes and get into the new managed lanes. By doing so, the paying motorists are expected to get to their destinations quicker in the less congested toll lanes but at the same time free up more room in the regular lanes.

The new Northwest Corridor Express Lanes that run along I-75 from Akers Mill Road to Hickory Grove Road, and along I-575 from I-75 to Sixes Road, have taken nearly an hour off people’s commute times, GDOT’s Matthews said.

By using elevated toll lanes in some areas, GDOT said it is trying to mitigate right-of-way acquisitions.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.