A Georgia Department of Transportation illustration shows the area it plans to build the I-285 top end toll lanes.

Elected officials in Dunwoody and Doraville are speaking out against the planned I-285 top end toll lanes and have signed a petition opposing the estimated $5 billion project expected to begin construction in 2023.

Dunwoody Councilmembers Lynn Deutsch, John Heneghan, Pam Tallmadge and Tom Lambert and Doraville City Councilmember Joseph Geierman have all signed the change.org petition started by Dunwoody resident Travis Reid. All said adding more lanes would not solve the traffic woes on I-285 and they are urging the Georgia Department of Transportation to reevaluate the project.

“The plan being presented is additional lanes and then there is a small chance of mass transit if the cities want to fund it,” Heneghan said in a written statement. “I believe this process is backward whereby mass transit should be the first discussion followed by other options like additional lanes after that.”

Heneghan says he plans to ask Dunwoody’s mayor and city manager to approve funding next year to hire an independent environmental impact attorney. The attorney would guide the city through the environmental study process now underway by the Georgia Department of Transportation as part of the toll lanes project, he said.

Dunwoody City Councilmember John Heneghan.

The “I-285 Top End Express Lanes” project focuses on adding two new elevated, barrier-separated toll lanes, or “express lanes,” in both directions on I-285, alongside regular travel lanes. They could stand 30 feet or higher. The boundaries of the I-285 project have shifted over time, now extending west to the Vinings area and east to the Henderson Road area, and, in a confusing twist, including a section of Ga. 400 as well.

In a separate toll lanes project, GDOT plans to start work on Ga. 400 to 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 current construction at I-285 and Ga. 400 is part of a completely different project known as “Transform 285/400.” This project is essentially just reconfiguring existing lanes, not adding toll lanes. GDOT aims to finish that project in late 2020. Click here for answers to frequently asked questions about the projects.

GDOT says the toll lanes would alleviate traffic some of the most heavily traveled and congested highways in the country by allowing motorists to pay a fee to drive in less congested lanes.

ARC and GDOT adopted the toll lane strategy as the way to alleviate traffic congestion in 2013. GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale said state law prohibits GDOT from funding heavy rail for transit and that is why focus is on building toll lanes.

“However, GDOT is tasked with improving mobility for the millions of motorists and commercial vehicles which use that state’s roads and bridges, yet still takes into account how transit options and use can be incorporated into projects – and does not preclude future additional transit options,” she said in a written statement.

Doraville City Councilmember Joseph Geierman.

Geierman is also blasting what he says is the secretive process the Georgia Department of Transportation is using to inform the public on what is happening. He said he found out GDOT took 5 acres of Doraville’s massive mixed-use redevelopment Assembly project for the toll lanes by reading the story in the Reporter.

GDOT officials say they are still in early concept design phases of the new toll lanes and will present detailed plans to the public in January.

“They have a plan they are not sharing with people, purposefully,” Geierman said. “They don’t want any of us to actually mobilize our neighbors and say, ‘This is what is going to happen.’

“Information is coming out so slowly it will be hard to organize a real response,” he said. “And there is so much money behind it. Legitimately, it will be hard to put out a defense.”

Deutsch said the “ambiguous responses” from GDOT on the project is causing stress for residents and business owners living along the top end of I-285.

GDOT has met off-and-on privately with “stakeholders,” such as DeKalb and Fulton County school systems, for over a year to get feedback on some details, and occasionally at local City Council meetings. GDOT also says it will meet with any local organization, such as a homeowners’ associations, but it does not proactively notify residents who might be affected.

Dale said that GDOT does proactively reach out to affected homeowners impacted by the right-of-way acquisition process, but does not publicly announce when parcels are purchased to protect the privacy of property owners.

“Often that contact is made months and sometimes years in advance of the actual purchase of property,” she said.

Signing a petition may not stop the project, but Deutsch said it plays an important role in raising awareness on toll lanes, their cost and impact to the top end communities. She also said the current plans are likely to be outdated in only a few years.

Dunwoody City Councilmember Lynn Deutsch.

“The automobile and transit industries are rapidly evolving. By the time these lanes open in 2028, cars will be safe, accidents fewer and we will likely be much closer to some types of autonomous vehicles,” she said. “Using a plan from 10 years ago seems shortsighted to me.”

The plan is not from 10 years ago, Dale said.

“The I-285 Top End Express Lanes is a new plan that requires a new environmental process,” she said. “GDOT recently closed the environmental process for an older plan, known as Revive 285, via a series of very public meetings during which [GDOT project manager] Tim Matthews explained the operational improvements that came from Revive 285, and the timeline on which GDOT will now continue to pursue the I-285 Top End Express Lanes. More than 600 people attended those meetings.”

Heneghan said in a written statement he has used public transportation nearly every day since high school and believes transit is the answer over building more interstate lanes. Fellow council members Lambert and Tallmadge say GDOT needs to explore more options than just adding more lanes.

“GDOT has always been about doing Band Aids instead of thinking 30 years out,” said Tallmadge, who supports light rail. “It’s so frustrating … as progressive as metro Atlanta is in so many ways, and that we are an economic engine of the South, that we cannot think 25 to 30 years ahead on how to fix the highway system.”

Lambert said he thinks GDOT needs to rethink the entire project.

“We need to tap the brakes a little bit. I don’t know if it’s going to create a measurable change in traffic and it has the potential to devastate communities in Dunwoody and across whole top end,” he said.

Dale said assertions that GDOT was not thinking into the future are wrong. The project plan is forecast out to 2040 based on population modeling “and other relevant factors,” she said.

“This means GDOT is looking more than 20 years into the future and is mindful of future growth patterns and predicted roadway usage,” she said.

GDOT is also taking into account emerging technologies as it plans its all of its projects, including the toll lanes projects, Dale said. The I-285 top end toll lanes will be barrier separated and will provide future opportunities for the coming autonomous vehicles, or AV, and connected vehicles, or CV, to travel in because these vehicles currently don’t work well with regular cars, she said.

“As the industry grows and progresses it is a very real option that the express lanes can be converted to accommodate AV/CV lanes in the future,” Dale said.

The toll lanes have been proven to work and shorten commute times, Dale said. The results for the first 8 months of express lane usage in the Northwest Corridor, the reversible lanes on I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties that opened last year, “have decreased travel times, and decreased the overall length of rush hour substantially in the corridor,” she said.

Dunwoody Councilmember Jim Riticher said he is not inclined to sign the petition because it could reduce influence the city might have in seeking amenities and/or concessions from GDOT. The toll lanes are also the best bet on getting bus rapid transit, or BRT, across I-285’s top end.

“No I-285 toll lanes means no infrastructure for BRT to run on,” he said. “I’m not inclined to sign absent a better argument than I’ve seen.”

Dunwoody Councilmember and mayoral candidate Terry Nall said the limited information known about the I-285 toll lanes project shows it will be “detrimental” to nearby neighborhoods and the city of Dunwoody. But the grassroots petition is a “just say no” approach that could hurt the city as the project progresses.

“While it sounds popular, signing it locks us into a single position with GDOT and removes us from the table of discussion. As a Dunwoody leader, I want to remain at the table with GDOT to seek a better outcome for Dunwoody,” Nall said in a written statement. “A ‘just say no’ approach will be unsuccessful for Dunwoody, especially on a project that has momentum from sources outside of Dunwoody.”

Geierman said he knows “sweeteners” such as adding BRT on the Ga. 400 toll lanes and discussions to do the same on the I-285 toll lanes are being included in the projects as a way to “keep everyone happy.”

“It’s infuriating to me that the state is spending billions on this project … that I guess is an Atlanta Regional Commission plan published years ago,” he said. “It was mostly developed by engineers at the Georgia Department of Transportation and ARC and then socialized into certain groups but never made public.”

Adding more lanes, even if they are toll lanes, will not alleviate congestion along I-285, Geierman said. More lanes mean more cars adding up to more traffic, he said. Adding other ways for people to get around, such as multiuse trails or even dedicated bus lanes, are options that could be explored.

“A lot of people who are in elected position are making different calculations and working with GDOT to get the best deal they can, and certainly that is smart,” he said. “But at same time, it just seems so wrong and I need to speak out. I think most of the people I represent are probably in the same boat I am.”

Dale argued that the toll lanes are multi-modal with transit benefits. The toll lanes provide opportunities for BRT which are dedicated transit lanes, she said.

“This is a solution to lack of rail along I-285 while MARTA, another transit provider, further explores their planning and funding,” she said. “Every transit bus in the express lanes means a single-occupant vehicle removed from the general purpose lanes.”

Doraville City Councilmember Stephe Koontz said she does not share the same concerns as Geierman and believes the toll lanes are going to benefit the city of Doraville and also provide connectivity options to MARTA and the Assembly project that are not currently there.

She also said that the main concerns she hears from people are that the new toll lanes are taking peoples homes and encroaching into neighborhoods. Ugly elevated toll lanes are another complaint, she said. But the people saying they want light rail or mass transit don’t seem to realize that these options would also include encroaching into residential neighborhoods, she said.

“I don’t understand where they think rail would go and not have this same type of impact,” Koontz said in an email. “We heard these same arguments when 400 was extended as well, can you imagine the congestion if that project had been shelved?”

Koontz also said BRT is the “future of mass transit” across the top end of I-285 and the new toll lanes provide the infrastructure to make that happen.

“No one is going to ride BRT sitting in the traffic on the lanes that exist now. GDOT has said these separated lanes will also be used for bus transit and from my experience, people use mass transit for the time savings more than anything else,” she said.

Geierman said he intends to work with GDOT to ensure mitigations for neighborhoods are part of the project, such as sound barriers. But, he said, there is only so much mitigation that can be done for elevated toll lanes that will be towering over neighborhoods.

Heneghan wrote June 5 on his blog that careful analysis of the environmental study now underway as part of the toll lanes project is one way to affect the plan “if not stop it completely.” He said he plans to ask the mayor and city manager at the June 10 meeting to add funding to the 2020 budget for the potential expense.

This story has been updated with comments from Dunwoody City Councilmembers Jim Riticher and Terry Nall and Doraville City Councilmember Stephe Koontz. GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale’s comments have also been added.

Dyana Bagby

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