Traffic tops the 2017 to-do list for Sandy Springs, the city made clear at its Jan. 24 annual retreat, and it’s willing to consider solutions that are innovative, daring, even downright taboo.
Big ideas the council is at least thinking about include: turning the Abernathy/Roswell roads intersection into an overpass; creating dedicated alternative transportation lanes on part of Mount Vernon Highway; and widening part of Riverside Drive along with a roundabout at Heards Ferry Road.
Mayor Rusty Paul noted that he and the City Council had requested outside-the-box solutions to traffic congestion. “You did what I asked,” he said, even if he and the councilmembers were balking at some of the ideas.
The retreat is annual gathering of the city’s leadership to sketch out the upcoming year’s policy agenda. This year’s edition, held at the city’s Lost Corner Preserve park, ran for more than nine hours, with at least half the time devoted to transportation talk.
This is the year the city will begin collecting revenue from a transportation-focused special local option sales tax approved by voters in November. City officials got updates on some of its TSPLOST projects as well as fielding some of those new, bold proposals. They also heard some statistics about why traffic is such a problem.
Patrick Bradshaw, a planner at the Atlanta Regional Commission, gave some demographic information about area commuting. Data from 2014 showed that, over the previous decade, the amount of people both living and working in Perimeter Center increased 119 percent—which is good for reducing commuter traffic. But in the same period, the number of people living in Perimeter Center and working elsewhere increased even more, by 153 percent. With metro Atlanta’s population expected to grow by more than 2 million by 2040, that’s a lot of traffic.
Even with major roadway projects like the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange reconstruction, ARC’s projections are that overall travel times by vehicle will get worse, making the area less desirable to people, unless alternative and mass transit options are created.
Assistant City Manager Bryant Poole reviewed some alternative transportation technologies that may solve problems and maybe create new ones, such as autonomous (or “self-driving”) cars, electric vehicles and shared vehicles. City planning should take them into account proactively, he said.
The following are some of the big projects and updates that got the mayor and council’s attention:
The Abernathy/Roswell intersection is one of the city’s biggest commuter-traffic crossings and, according to city staff, among its most congested, with significant rush-hour delays. Its various lanes currently handle around 600 to 1,600 cars per hour at peak times and that volume is projected to increase.
The best solution, according to a city-hired consultant: putting Abernathy onto a four-lane overpass above Roswell Road there. The estimated cost, including significant right of way takings on nearby properties: $49.5 million.
“I’ll tell you exactly what people in Sandy Springs are going to say… ‘This is insane!’” responded Councilmember Tibby DeJulio, noting that is a lot to spend to “help Cobb County commuters.”
A smaller Abernathy overpass and a vice-versa version with a Roswell Road overpass were rejected as ineffective, and a tunnel rather than an overpass was deemed too expensive. Other rejected alternatives included a roundabout and a giant cloverleaf-style intersection.
Mount Vernon multi-modal lanes
The city is already committed, on its TSPLOST project list, to building a multi-use path on Mount Vernon Highway between Roswell Road and the Sandy Springs MARTA Station. Now, in addition to the path, city staff proposed adding “multi-modal lanes” for bikes, shuttles and alternative transit.
The lanes would be dedicated to those non-car options, but are flexible in their use. They could be restricted only during certain hours, or be made reversible to match rush hour demands, Poole said.
In one option, the multi-use path would run on the south side of the roadway, while the street features a multi-modal lane in each direction alongside normal travel lanes.
The proposal has no cost estimate, except it would be more than the $11 million TSPLOST budget, and would require significant right of way acquisition from houses and institutions, possibly including a cemetery. The mayor and council called for further study.
Mount Vernon roundabouts changes
Another TSPLOST project will turn the Mount Vernon/Johnson Ferry Road intersection into dual roundabouts. But exactly how and where has been a headache for the city and some neighboring property owners.
Under previous federal funding, the project bogged down in historic preservation requirements triggered by properties within the project area. And residents and management at the Mount Vernon Towers senior home objected to losing much of its front lawn and driveway in early drafts. Now the city is funding the project itself and can ignore the historic issues, but it still faces alternatives that all involve taking someone’s right of way.
At the retreat, officials presented three options for shifting the eastern roundabout to take less Mount Vernon Towers property, as well as an option for building a grid-like intersection instead of roundabouts. The mayor and council preferred two options that would move the roundabout to the southeast, one about 50 feet and the other about 190 feet.
Both options mean taking varying amounts of property from the Sandy Springs Branch Library to the east and a bank and houses to the south. One option would take part of the library’s parking lot.
“This is almost a zero sum…Someone’s going to be impacted one way or another,” said City Manager John McDonough.
Paul suggested a possible major trade with the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System. “I’d be willing to talk to them about a new library…an opportunity to have a better-quality library in a different location,” he said.
Councilmember John Paulson suggested making the roundabouts at least slightly smaller. City staff will refine the two options for later council review.
Riverside/Heards Ferry widening, roundabout
Riverside at Heards Ferry, just north of the I-285 interchange, is another big congestion point. Even the consulting firm A&R Engineering was surprised when two standard solutions—better turn lanes or conversion to a roundabout—wouldn’t help. Another surprise: a claim that a significant amount of the traffic there is local, not cut-through commuters.
City staff floated a new possible solution: create the roundabout, but also add capacity by widening Riverside to two lanes between 285 and River Valley Road. While staff presented a drawing of the idea, it is a preliminary concept, not a formal design or plan.
Paul and Councilmember Chris Burnett, who lives in the area, balked at the idea.
“We had a longtime commitment not to widen Riverside Drive and this would be perceived as the nose of the camel under the tent,” the mayor said.
Burnett called a roundabout “extremely problematic” as possibly worsening back-ups and also cited the no-widening pledge. “If we back off from that, our credibility is shot,” he said.
However, the promise was based on dislike of cut-through traffic. Paul and Councilmember Gabriel Sterling said that if a large portion of the traffic is indeed local, that could change minds.
McDonough said he knows the topic is extremely sensitive, but he also noted that city staff have to focus on data. The original intent was to present design alternatives at a council “work session,” but that was never formally scheduled and became moot when none of the alternatives were viable. The current roundabout and widening idea is very preliminary and McDonough said that “small group” discussions are his preference over more work sessions for now. City spokesperson Sharon Kraun explained that means answering councilmembers’ questions about the limited existing data and ideas, while further engineering is done to create an actual new proposal that would go to public meetings and council hearings.
“This is one of the hottest spots in the community, Mayor… This is the reality of what the results are,” McDonough said, adding that the question is: “Is it worth studying [the proposal] with the involvement of neighborhoods or not?”
The mayor and council called for solid stats on where traffic there is going. City staff said viewing traffic flow from the air was one method used to determine the significant local component, but they could not provide solid numbers.
“We can put the helicopter back up and get the count,” McDonough said.
Kraun later said the city is now planning how to do that data-gathering and it will be some time before any new alternative plan is ready for public meetings–if the idea even proves viable.
“We’re a long way out from that,” Kraun said. “It may turn out to be a non-starter.”
Powers Ferry/285 interchange
The new Atlanta Braves stadium opening in nearby Cobb County this spring is a major traffic concern for Sandy Springs. But one of the city’s most desired traffic mitigation measures is now “on indefinite hold,” Poole said: a rebuilt I-285/Powers Ferry Road interchange on the Cobb side of the Chattachoochee River.
A long-awaited feasibility study was reviewed by the state, Poole said, “but, unfortunately, it didn’t pass the smell test with GDOT.” The state determined the project would help traffic locally, but not regionally, so it won’t move forward, he said.
The city got a preview of the “Last-Mile Connectivity” study for Perimeter Center that will be presented at a Jan. 26 public open house. The study aims to get commuters out of cars by making sure it’s easy to get from mass transit to local destinations across the gap of the “last mile” or whatever the distance may be. The plan is a joint effort among Sandy Springs, Brookhaven, Dunwoody and the Perimeter Center Improvement Districts.
Conducted by Gresham, Smith and Partners, the study mostly coordinates the area’s many existing studies and plans while providing overall strategy advice. However, it has one central proposal for Perimeter Center: a network of dedicated lanes for private shuttles and MARTA and GRTA buses.
Not on the table are some of the more attention-grabbing ideas for such a network, such as a monorail or a cable-car network, though advocates are still trying.
“We did get an email from the gondola guy in the past 24 hours,” said McDonough.
285/400 managed lanes
The state’s reconstruction of the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange will begin in earnest over the next couple of months and is so massive it won’t open until mid-2020. But it’s also only the beginning of more than a decade more road work. After it’s done, the state plans to add “managed lanes”—toll lanes—to both highways.
Georgia Department of Transportation officials gave the city an updated on the managed lanes idea, including a new rough timeline. The lanes on 400 would run along the median from Perimeter Center to Alpharetta’s McFarland Parkway, but still require overall road-widening, and could open in 2026, said GDOT communications manager Jill Goldberg.
The 285 managed lanes are still in a rough design phase and the first public input meetings could come late this year, Goldberg said.
Paulson pushed GDOT to consider building the lanes on elevated double-decker ramps instead of widening the road, especially on 400. “You’re going to take a lot of back yards along that whole strip,” he said.
Mayor Paul emphasized ensuring there is still room to add mass transit lines on both corridors, which GDOT said will remain possible.
Ashton Woods MARTA connector bridge
A roadway connecting the Glenlake Parkway area to the North Springs MARTA Station via a new bridge over Ga. 400 is climbing up the city’s agenda.
Glenlake is home to such major businesses as UPS’s world headquarters and is just across the street from the forthcoming new Mercedes-Benz USA headquarters. It’s also the rear entryway for the new Ashton Woods housing development going up on the former Glenridge Hall estate. As part of the rezoning, Ashton Woods agreed to leave driveway connections for the future MARTA connection.
The concept is a roadway that could handle bikes, pedestrians and possible shuttles. Officials said it remains a preliminary concept with no cost estimate, but talks are underway with UPS and other local interests.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with more information about the next step in the Riverside Drive roundabout and widening concept.