As the state moves head on plans for toll lanes on Ga. 400 and I-285, controversy and discussion have centered on some major unknowns, such as property takings and new interchange locations. But there also has been some confusion about topics that are at least partly known. The following are the basic answers to some common questions about the toll lanes.

A screenshot from an illustrated video released by the Georgia Department of Transportation shows a section of the future toll lanes along Ga. 400 over Northridge Road in Sandy Springs.

Where did the toll lanes idea come from?

More than a decade ago, GDOT began a planning process for Perimeter traffic relief, known as “Revive 285,” that looked at a wide variety of options, including forms of mass transit, before settling on a metro-wide system of toll lanes.

What is the purpose of the toll lanes?

GDOT says the toll lanes will improve traffic congestion by taking vehicles out of the regular lanes, as well as by serving as mass transit bus routes on at least part of the highways. The Ga. 400 and I-285 toll lanes are part of a wider system planned for the metro area, parts of which are already open on I-75, I-85, I-575 and some other highways.

Is this one project or two – or three?

It’s easy to get confused about GDOT’s local plans because they involves three different projects. While the Ga. 400 toll lanes and I-285 toll lanes would be part of a single network, they are two separate projects with different construction timelines. And the major construction work currently underway on the Ga. 400/I-285 interchange has nothing to do with the toll lanes.

The interchange reconstruction, known as “Transform 285/400,” is essentially just reconfiguring existing lanes, not adding toll lanes. GDOT aims to finish that project in late 2020.

The first toll lanes project is Ga. 400, expected to start construction in 2021. The I-285 toll lanes would follow in 2023. For added confusion, the “I-285” project actually includes part of the Ga. 400 toll lanes between I-285 and the North Springs MARTA Station.

How would the toll lanes be funded?

GDOT is using a public-private partnership, which means that private companies fund the construction and make their money back over time through the tolls. After that money is regained, the toll revenue would be spent on “other transportation needs,” according to GDOT.

Will mass transit use the toll lanes?

Bus rapid transit, operated by MARTA, is planned for part of the Ga. 400 lanes and is being studied for I-285. BRT is being considered as a less expensive alternative to heavy rail.

Why toll lanes instead of a MARTA rail extension?

Extending MARTA’s Red Line northward through Sandy Springs was locally supported in recent transit plans, but ultimately abandoned after leaders in some other north Fulton cities said they would not support it and the sales tax that might fund it. Bus transit was the consensus option, and GDOT agreed to work with MARTA on including it on the Ga. 400 toll lanes. Rail on I-285 was among the options considered in “Revive 285” before toll lanes were settled on.

Why is GDOT not placing tolls on existing lanes instead of building new toll lanes?

GDOT cites a combination of practical and regulatory reasons. In practice, converting four lanes of Ga. 400 to tolls would reduce capacity by about 40% and make congestion worse, GDOT says. In addition, GDOT is operating under a policy requiring that any new lanes it builds must be tolled, and a federal restriction on converting general-purpose lanes to toll lanes. The policy could be changed and there are exemptions to the federal rules that could apply locally. But for now, the political climate is against changes following removal of toll booths elsewhere on Ga. 400 in 2013 and a 2011 controversy over converting an I-85 HOV lane to a tolled lane.

How do the toll lanes work?

  • The tolls would only be collected on the newly built toll lanes. Drivers have the choice of whether to use the lanes.
  • Using the toll lanes requires a Peach Pass, an electronic tag registered to a vehicle.
  • The price would vary and would be set by the State Road and Tollway Authority in real time depending on the level of congestion on the lanes.
  • The idea behind the variable pricing is to keep traffic flowing in the lanes faster than in the regular lanes. Giving drivers the option to have a faster trip time on the toll lanes is expected to lower congestion in the regular lanes as well, according to GDOT.

–Evelyn Andrews and John Ruch