State Rep. Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs) speaks at the front of the City Springs room at the packed Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods annual meeting April 22. (Evelyn Andrews)

The Georgia Department of Transportation’s planned toll lanes on Ga. 400 and I-285 were the main topic of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods annual meeting on April 22, where residents continued to voice concerns about impacts the project could bring. The controversial toll lanes are expected to ease traffic congestion, but some residents would lose their homes and others are concerned by noise and quality of life impacts.

The meeting was led by state Rep. Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs), who has been calling for a meeting between GDOT, state and local elected officials, and pushing for residents to provide their input. The event was held in City Springs and attended by over 100 people, including several Sandy Springs City Council members, state Rep. Josh McLaurin (D-Sandy Springs) and Kevin Abel, who sits on a board overseeing GDOT. Tim Matthews, the toll lanes project manager, also attended and answered questions.

Silcox said she’ll “fight” for mitigations like parks in areas where properties have been taken, sound barriers and for GDOT to change the plans to be less impactful, such as putting the lanes underneath the Northridge Road overpass instead of over top. 

“Like you, i am very upset and concerned about this projects,” she said. “It is not too late for every single one of us to have input into these projects.”

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.

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.

Around 40 properties, many of which are houses, would need to be demolished in Sandy Springs in one section of Ga. 400. The part of the highway south of the North Springs MARTA Station was recently shifted into the I-285 project and is on a later timeline. Property impacts for that project have not yet been officially revealed, but Brookhaven officials recently said they’ve been told by GDOT 300 properties are expected to be affected.

A resident of Spalding Woods, a neighborhood along Ga. 400, said her home is not being taken for this project, but she is near others that area.

“This is just breaking my heart,” she said. “People have lived there since 1985, and they have their home paid off, and no matter what the DOT gives them, it’s not even enough to get back in the neighborhood.”

The project is seperate from the Transform 285/400, which is GDOT’s massive project to rebuild the Ga. 400 and I-285 interchange.

Following someone’s comment that the Transform 285/400 project is expected to save each person one minute in travel time each direction, another resident asked if the toll lanes are expected to bring a similar benefit.

“I’m just trying to figure out what the problem actually is. Are people going to sit on Ga. 400 for six hours? Three hours? Or is going to be one minute longer than they are right now?” he said. “I’m just wondering if you can be very explicit about what problem you’re actually solving so that we can understand why you want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars putting concrete in the air so people who live in Alpharetta can get downtown one minute quicker.”

Matthews did not cite specific travel times, but said GDOT’s indicate rush hour will get worse and people may increasingly turn to city roads and clog local traffic.

“Basically, the model is showing we’re going to have a breakdown in traffic,” he said. “If we don’t do anything, it’s just going to get worse.”

Residents of the Northridge Road area, where GDOT has planned flyover lanes atop the overpass, continued their call for the agency to rethink that plan, saying it would cause huge quality of life losses.

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. But residents think the impact they’ll see is worth rebuilding the bridge to fit the lanes underneath.

“We’re paying for that project through our life savings being wiped out or diminished by a project that’s going to put this ugly, urban expressway in the middle of a residential community when we know…it can go under the bridge,” one resident said.

Matthews said he has been speaking with the city of Sandy Springs and Councilmember John Paulson, who has also been pushing for that to be changed. Matthews has instructed GDOT staff to take a look at the area to see if something else could be feasible.

Some questioned why the state is making an investment in this project instead of expanding transit.

“We’ve got a state of the art transit system right out there and its dead ended,” a resident said, referencing the North Springs MARTA Station, the north terminus of the transit system. 

Silcox, the new chair of the General Assembly committee that supervises MARTA’s budget, MARTOC, said it is mostly due to cost. Transit cannot be funded by GDOT.