By Joe Earle and Pat Fox
The numbers seem a bit overwhelming: 6 miles of roadway, perhaps four levels of bridges, nearly $1 billion in construction costs.
But the problem is huge. More than 416,000 drivers pass through – at times, make that inch through – the intersection of Ga. 400 and I-285 every day.
To try to ease the resulting congestion, state transportation officials are considering spending three or so years remaking the stretch of I-285 beginning just east of Ashford Dunwoody Road and ending just west of Roswell Road and the segment of Ga. 400 running from south of the Glenridge Connector to Hammond Drive.
Meanwhile, just down the many-laned road, Cobb County officials are considering how to handle the 20,000 more cars expected to head to the Cumberland Mall area when the Atlanta Braves relocate to their new suburban stadium in 2017.
Put simple, construction on the stretch of I-285 running through or near Reporter Newspapers communities — Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, Brookhaven and Buckhead — will soon be ramping up. Regular I-285 drivers know that will translate in the short term to a brightly flashing sign saying simply: Delays ahead.
But former Sandy Springs City Councilman Chip Collins, for one, figures it’s worth it. “In the short term, it will cause some issues, but there’re already issues,” he said. “Sometime to make things better, they’ve got to get worse for a while.”
And the intersection of Ga. 400 and I-285 has got to get better, he says. “I agree with Gov. [Nathan} Deal when he says it’s the most important project in metro Atlanta,” Collin said. “The intersection is one of the least effective in the number of cars it has to take. I don’t even get near I-285 and Ga. 400 at certain times of day. … We’ve got to make this interchange work.”
As for the Braves, Collins says he’s happy living within a few miles of the planned new stadium. “As a Braves fan, I love the fact that the stadium will be about three miles as the crow flies from my home,” he said. “If traffic’s real bad, I can always ride my bike to the game.”
Not everyone is quite so welcoming.
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said his initial reaction upon hearing about the new Braves stadium was shock.
“And then when I realized where it was – horror,” he said.
“While it’s a Cobb County project, when you look at where the season ticket holders are, Sandy Springs is going to be the front door to this thing.”
Sandy Springs is familiar with Cobb County traffic. The route along Johnson Ferry Road west to Roswell Road into Atlanta sees close to 45,000 vehicles a day, many of them from Cobb County.
Paul said he’s excited to have the Braves nearby, and he expects the complex will be a long-term plus for the region. Still, the traffic challenges to those cities in the path of the front gates could be debilitating.
The I-75/I-285 interchange, the nearest connection of interstates to the planned new stadium, is already one of the most congested in metro Atlanta, with rush-hour backups a daily occurrence. Adding Braves traffic to that mix, Paul said, will force people to seek alternate routes such as Roswell Road through Sandy Springs.
Paul believes Cobb County officials and Braves officials have downplayed the traffic issue, saying a host of multi-million-dollar projects are under way to ease traffic flow through the corridor. The county, for instance, recently announced a $41 million plan to widen Windy Hill Road and install a new interchange with I-75, widen a portion of Cobb Parkway to six lanes, and add managed lanes to I-75 north. Adjustments to nearby streets and exits are also being considered.
And Paul isn’t alone in questioning the road plan for the stadium.
In a review of the Development of Regional Impact study for the project, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority called for better pedestrian access to the stadium in addition to traffic improvements. GRTA approved the stadium transportation plan subject to a long list of conditions calling for improvements to Cobb Parkway, Cumberland Boulevard, Windy Hill Road and Powers Ferry Road.
Laura Bell, developmental regional impact manager for GRTA, said the transportation analysis looked chiefly at the Cumberland area. “We’re not trying to track every trip,” Bell said. “We’re just trying to track the majority where we can figure out where regional impact would occur.”
Because the traffic surge for night baseball games will coincide with the evening driving peak, it will affect traffic throughout the “top end” of the Perimeter, predicts Bob Dallas, a Dunwoody resident and former director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. State and local governments should figure out how to get more dollars into the system to fund transportation — not just roadways, but also transit, he said.
“Our region wants to continue to grow,” Dallas said. “We have not kept up with our growth.”
Or the traffic. Georgia DOT’s proposed improvements to the Ga. 400/I-285 intersection include adding collector lanes, improving ramps connecting the two roads and widening or rebuilding several bridges. “Specific interchange footprint will be determined as the interchange concepts are finalized,” GDOT spokeswoman Nathalie Dale said in an email.
Construction is expected to begin in 2016 and last about three years, Dale said.
Once the work begins, lawyer Sally Wyeth will have a close-up view from her office near the Glenridge Connector. She commutes into Sandy Springs every day, so she’s not looking forward to the problems she expects will be created by the construction. Still, she’s optimistic about the outcome.
“I think we can live through it,” she said.