As neighborhood impacts of toll lanes planned along Ga. 400 and I-285 become clearer, city and state elected officials are seeking ways to influence the process with varying tactics. Some officials say they’ll fight the project, while others aim for smaller tweaks. Some call for community-wide meetings, while some work behind the scenes.
“I know it’s been on the books for a long time, but we need to mitigate it as much as we can,” said Rep. Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs), who said she’s trying to arrange a large-scale meeting of state engineers, local officials and possibly the general public. “This is very upsetting.”
The toll lanes, called “express lanes” or “managed lanes,” are proposed by the Georgia Department of Transportation in two projects that would add four new toll lanes along I-285 and Ga. 400 in the Perimeter Center area over the next decade, starting with Ga. 400 in 2021.
Around 40 properties, many of which are houses, would need to be demolished in one section of Ga. 400, GDOT has already said. And the Northridge Road area is pushing back on a plan to build flyover lanes atop the road’s overpass.
Residents and elected officials said at the project’s the final open house held March 12 in Sandy Springs City Hall that it will be important to make a push for buffers, such as parks, trees and sound walls, between neighborhoods and the toll lanes.
Although it’s a project by a state agency and outside city officials’ control, some said they do have advocacy plans.
Sandy Springs City Councilmember Andy Bauman said the call for aesthetic improvements and sound barriers was “clearly a common thread” among discussions at the meeting. Although the City Council has no formal vote or approval of the project, their input is used, and he plans to continue to push for those mitigations.
“City Council has a say, but we don’t have a vote,” he said. “We’re in the ‘make the most of it’ phase.”
Sandy Springs Councilmember Jody Reichel, who represents the neighborhoods where most displacements are expected, said she will help push for a park on Northgreen to “make it look beautiful afterwards.”
Sandy Springs Councilmember Chris Burnett also said in an email that the can push for GDOT to donate land and fund green space projects.
“While this won’t ease the pain for those losing their homes, it will certainly improve the quality of life for those residents who remain,” he said.
The toll lanes projects are expected to start with Ga. 400, which would add two new barrier-separated express lanes in both directions alongside regular travel lanes in a project estimated to cost $1.2 billion and begin construction in 2021. The I-285 Top End Express Lanes project, estimated to cost close to $5 billion, would add similar lanes and is expected to begin in 2023. Ga. 400 south of the North Springs MARTA Station was recently shifted to the I-285 project and impacts won’t be known until late this year.
GDOT has said the project is expected to lower travel times for both drivers in the toll lanes and the existing lanes. Public input is vital to the project and will be used as the design moves forward, GDOT says.
State officials, who do have some oversight over GDOT projects, are taking different approaches on how to deal with the toll lane impacts.
Seeking ‘straight answers’
Silcox has been calling for a meeting between GDOT, state and local elected officials to get “straight answers.” She recently said she is still working on arranging that, as well as ways to mitigate some of the impacts and make the project better for neighborhoods. She also will be the featured speaker at the April 22 annual meeting of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, with the toll lanes as the topic.
State Rep. Mike Wilensky (D-Dunwoody) said at a March 19 town hall at Dunwoody City Hall that the lanes can’t be stopped, and residents and officials will need to work with GDOT to try to get mitigation. “I haven’t learned of anything we can do to stop this, so we have to work with [GDOT],” Wilensky said.
But state Sen. Sally Harrell (D-Dunwoody) encouraged a more aggressive approach, saying it will take organization to “fight” the lanes. “We all have to band together across communities,” Harrell said.
Dunwoody has concerns about the placement of access points and making sure they equally distribute traffic, but overall, the project is needed to improve traffic in the area, City Manager Eric Linton said in a May 2018 letter to Tim Matthews, GDOT’s toll lanes project manager. The letter, which was obtained through an open records request, was about the access points.
“The city appreciates the state’s commitment to improve mobility in the Perimeter Center area, which is a vital economic engine for the region and the state,” Linton said. “With more than 120,000 people commuting daily to jobs in the Perimeter business district, these improvements are important to the continued vitality of the region.”
Dunwoody spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher said in an email that the city wants to help mitigate “land impacts, noise and any other negative impacts, as much as possible.”
“The Perimeter Center is a powerful economic engine, and transportation solutions are important. But the protection of our neighborhoods is also important,” Boettcher said. “We intend to work toward the best solution for the residents and businesses in Dunwoody.”
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said during a discussion on access points at the March 19 City Council meeting that the city and GDOT “have got a good relationship and “a good dialogue going.”
“GDOT is focused on the cheapest, simplest solution. It may not be the best solution for community, and that’s where we come in,” Paul said.
Paul later said in a written statement that the city has offered “several” suggestions to GDOT for how to improve the toll lanes for residents.
“The city’s focus is on reducing, wherever possible, any negative impacts on our citizens and our community at large,” Paul said. “As GDOT develops its final plans, we will continue to evaluate them and pose additional alternatives if we believe they will lessen any negative effects on our residents.”
Sandy Springs also helped negotiate room for extending PATH400, a multi-use trail, from Buckhead through the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange in the current reconstruction project.
Ann Hanlon, executive director of the Perimeter Center Improvement Districts, has been featured in a GDOT video expressing support for the project.
“The new capacity and express lanes on Ga. 400 is really going to be one of the critical steps that helps solve congestion relief and traffic coming into the Perimeter market from lots of other parts of metro Atlanta,” Hanlon says in the video.
One concern of residents is where sound walls will be built to mitigate noise pollution. GDOT is collecting input on where they should go, and residents will be able to later vote on their location. “I think it’s absolutely essential that if there is any increased noise, we have adequate buffers,” said Rep. Josh McLaurin (D-Sandy Springs).
Flyover lanes at Northridge
Many residents of Northridge Road, where GDOT has planned flyover lanes atop the overpass, said the lanes could change the character of the area and bring more noise and pollution.
GDOT has said the flyover lanes are needed due to space constraints and complications such as a Fulton County water line that would need to be relocated. Northridge is where the lanes transition from being on the outside of the regular lanes to the center.
Because the bridge is not wide enough to fit the lanes underneath it, the lanes have to go over the top, said Tim Matthews, the GDOT project manager. Although three other bridges are being rebuilt for this reason, GDOT does not want to do the same at Northridge because it was only completed in 2015, Matthews said.
Sandy Springs Councilmember John Paulson said residents are in an “uproar” over the lanes. He is pushing GDOT to move the lanes to the center at a point farther south, possibly at Spalding Drive.
Also, due to the flyover design, a Northridge Road transit station in Sandy Springs that has been on the table for years is not part of the toll lanes project, according to MARTA.
A Northridge heavy rail station, which would have been part of a Red Line extension, was a key section of the city’s Comprehensive Plan for the area, which was approved in 2017. Fulton leaders approved focusing on bus rapid transit in early 2018, a decision that they say does not preclude future heavy rail.
Paulson also is trying to help preserve four homes that would be taken for the Pitts Road bridge replacement, which has to be rebuilt to be wide enough to fit the toll lanes beneath it.
To keep access to the bridge open during toll lane construction, GDOT is planning to build a temporary bridge for drivers to use. This means the bridge would be realigned, which would require the demolition of four single-family houses.
Another option GDOT is presenting would close the bridge for six months while it’s demolished and rebuilt, which would allow the homes to stay.
Amar Doshi, one of the homeowners, said he is not prepared to give up on his home and wants to make sure GDOT fully evaluates all the options.
Doshi said he feels GDOT has not made it clear enough that closing the bridge, and saving the houses, is being considered. “It’s almost like they’re showing that’s the only option,” he said of demolishing the homes. “It’s kind of shady.”
Paulson said “several neighbors” he spoke with didn’t realize closing the bridge was being considered, perhaps in part because it was on a separate board.
GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale said all information is set up equally at meetings.
The Pitts Road homes are just four of more than 40 properties in Sandy Springs that GDOT says would need to be demolished for the project.
Reichel, who represents much of those areas, said the most concerns she’s heard from the residents who own those properties are questioning how the acquisition and appraisal process works.
“After speaking with [GDOT], I feel good GDOT is going to work with them to get the best possible price for their house,” she said.
Another major concern from cities is where the separate toll lane access points will go. GDOT has not released a full list of locations, but has said Perimeter Center Parkway, North Shallowford Road and Mount Vernon Highway are under consideration. Sandy Springs has also negotiated to have Johnson Ferry Road added.
Sandy Springs officials have been privately negotiating with GDOT about a possible access point on Crestline Parkway, which would require the demolition of an eight-unit townhome building, documents obtained by Reporter Newspapers revealed.
GDOT says it is willing to consider using Crestline, rather than its preferred proposal to use Mount Vernon Highway, if the city agrees to cover the extra expense of around $23 million.
The idea for a Mount Vernon interchange, needed because GDOT wants the toll lanes to have separate access points, has long been a concern for officials in Sandy Springs, where the interchange would be, and in Dunwoody, where the street crosses the border about a half-mile away as Mount Vernon Road.
The PCIDs is comparing the Mount Vernon and Crestline traffic impacts in a study that will wrap up by this summer, when Sandy Springs will have to tell GDOT its decision.
Paul said the city is trying to make the project better for the community, but is limited in what it can be done.
“[GDOT has] been very clear: if it delays the timeline, the answer’s no. If it costs more, get out your checkbook,” Paul said at the meeting. “They’ve listened to our case. We haven’t convinced them yet.”
Several people whose houses are not targeted for demolition said at the March 12 open house that they wish GDOT would buy their homes anyway so they won’t have to deal with potential increased noise, loss of property value and bad aesthetics.
Chuck Sliker, who lives in Stratford Manor near Northridge Road, said he understands the need for the project, but hopes GDOT is able to fund improvements that will help neighborhoods deal with the fallout.
“We’re not saying that this is not an important project, but if it is so important, let’s throw the money at it to make sure our residents can live comfortably,” Sliker said.
Paul Young, a resident on Northgreen Drive, where 19 homes are targeted for demolition, said his house is not planned to be taken, but he is concerned about how his neighborhood will look after most of the houses on the street are gone. The neighborhood wants to push for some kind green space and beautification, he said.
“Our main concern is what’s left behind,” Young said.
–Dyana Bagby and John Ruch contributed