GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry discusses the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange project at a press conference before the Perimeter Business Alliance luncheon Dec. 11 at the La Meridien Perimeter Atlanta Hotel in Dunwoody. (Photo John Ruch)
GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry discusses the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange project at a press conference before the Perimeter Business Alliance luncheon Dec. 11 at the La Meridien Perimeter Atlanta Hotel in Dunwoody. (Photo John Ruch)

Time—and lives—will be saved by the upcoming reconstruction of the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange, state transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said at a Dec. 11 luncheon celebrating GDOT’s selection of construction team North Perimeter  Contractors.

“We always get focused on what the design is and what the project will look like…but sometimes we lose sight of what the project does,” McMurry said at the Perimeter Business Alliance luncheon at Dunwoody’s La Meridien Atlanta Perimeter Hotel. This project will annually save commuters eight hours and employers $100 million in lost productivity, and will reduce accidents in the crash-prone corridor, he said.

Slated for a possible groundbreaking next year and completion in 2020, the rebuild will add exit/entrance lanes and flyover ramps, much like the I-285/I-85 interchange nicknamed Spaghetti Junction. Maybe they’ll call it the Perimeter Pretzel.

Also like Spaghetti Junction, the new 285/400 interchange won’t be clog-free. Those eight saved hours a year amounts to less than 2 minutes shaved off the average trip, and McMurry acknowledged, “There still will be congestion on 285.” Still, he said it should handle projected development growth for “20-plus years” in an interchange that currently carries about 400,000 vehicles per day.

“I submit to you the Perimeter area is the economic heart of our entire state” and needs cleared-out “arteries,” said Wendell Willard, the city attorney for Sandy Springs and one of its local state representatives.

An unusual, pedestrian-friendly addition to the project is an extension of the PATH 400 multi-use trail crossing through the interchange by a yet-to-be-designed route, thanks to the PATH Foundation and the Perimeter Center Improvement Districts. McMurry said there are “not many places in the nation where you can say you are doing a freeway project with a multi-use path going right through it.”

PCIDs, a group of self-taxing businesses and organizations, is a major contributor to the project both in planning and in cash to the tune of $10 million. “That’s putting your money where your mouth is,” McMurry said, praising PCIDs as a “shining example” for other business districts nationwide to follow.

Yvonne Williams, president and CEO of PCIDs, praised the 285/400 project as part of “a system of transportation that has never been seen before in a corporate area.” The group works on a wide variety of transportation improvements in Perimeter Center, from sidewalks to shuttle services to MARTA connections.

North Perimeter Contractors has a big local connection, too. The team’s lead contractor is Ferrovial Agroman US Corp., which has a regional headquarters office in the Dunwoody part of Perimeter Center.

“Our leadership for the entire eastern U.S. drives through the project [area] every day,” said Ferrovial Agroman’s Jeffrey Wagner.

Having a lead contractor who shares the pain of local commuters may count as a plus. But Brookhaven Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams and Dunwoody City Councilwoman Lynn Deutsch were among those who expressed concerns in an interview about traffic detours and delays during construction.

“We’re doomed” with cut-through traffic during construction, Deutsch said. However, both officials agreed that, as Williams put it, “The long-term fix is worth it.”

McMurry said that construction impacts on traffic will be unavoidable. But, he added, part of the contractor selection included coming up with a plan to handle it—or at least warn travelers about how bad it will be.

“We will have the most intensive public communications plan ever,” McMurry said. “We’re very excited about really elevated communication…on a level that’s never been seen in Georgia.”

North Perimeter Contractors was awarded the project with a $460 million bid. That’s probably closer to $680 million with right-of-way acquisitions, McMurry said, but still far below the $1.1 billion GDOT once estimated as the project’s cost. It remains unclear exactly how North Perimeter came in with such a lower-than-estimated cost, though McMurry said proposing somewhat smaller bridges was one factor.

“Don’t worry about that price being so cheap it won’t get done,” McMurry said, adding that GDOT is protected by contractual guarantees. The project is being funded under a plan that has the contractor self-funding during the project and the state then reimbursing it over a three-year period several years later, allowing the cost to be spread out.

While the 285/400 project was proposed in 2012 and is still at least five years from completion, that’s a fast process by state highway standards. Bob Voyles, chair of the Perimeter Business Alliance board, was among many officials and business leaders expressing excitement at the luncheon about both GDOT and MARTA becoming faster-moving transportation agencies.

(from left) PCIDs President and CEO Yvonne Williams; GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry; and Jose Penalver of North Perimeter Contractors team member Ferrovial Agroman US Corp. pose after the Dec. 11 Perimeter Business Alliance luncheon in Dunwoody. (Photo John Ruch)

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.