New toll lanes to be built along I-285 could hurt some homeowners, businesses and a beloved recreation center in Dunwoody’s Georgetown neighborhood, according to a City Council member. But nobody yet knows the details of the Georgia Department of Transportation’s “I-285 Top End Express Lanes” project, creating an uncertainty that is frustrating city officials.
“This is my most hated project ever,” City Councilmember Lynn Deutsch said in an interview. She has been on the council for seven years and her district includes Georgetown.
“There’s potential for a real negative impact on Georgetown … but we don’t know,” she said.
“The attitude I hear from talking to others is this is a done deal. But I don’t think it has to be,” Deutsch said. “There have been no public meetings, this is costing billions of dollars, and at the end of the day, what does any taxpayer get for it and, specifically, what if any benefits are there to my city’s residents?”
The I-285 Top End Express Lanes project, estimated to cost close to $5 billion, focuses on adding two new elevated, barrier-separated express lanes in both directions on I-285, alongside regular travel lanes. They could stand 30 feet or higher. GDOT says the added toll lanes would alleviate traffic on one of the most heavily traveled and congested highways in the country by allowing motorists to pay a fee to drive in less congested lanes.
On I-285, the lanes would run between I-75 in Cobb County and I-85’s Spaghetti Junction, with other segments to the east and west extending near I-20. Construction could start in 2023 and opening could come in 2028.
The toll lanes would be similar to the recently opened Northwest Corridor Express Lanes. That project added nearly 30 miles of toll lanes along sections of I-75 and I-575. The tallest bridge of the Northwest Corridor stands 105 feet above ground level, according to media reports.
Toll lanes are also planned for Ga. 400 between I-285 and McFarland Parkway. Preliminary studies are underway for the nearly $2 billion project that would add two elevated, barrier separated express lanes in each direction between I-285 and Spalding Drive. Plans also call for two toll lanes in each direction between Spalding Drive and McGinnis Ferry Road and one toll lane in each direction from McGinnis Ferry Road to McFarland Parkway.
Construction of those toll lanes is slated to begin in 2021 and open to traffic 2024.
The I-285 top end toll lanes and Ga. 400 toll lanes are separate projects from the “Transform 285/400” project now underway. Transform 285/400 is essentially reorganizing and rebuilding the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange to make traffic flow faster and safer. It is expected to be finished in 2020.
Squeezing even more lanes into the interchange has a number of effects that concern officials in all cities with I-285 as a border. Sandy Springs City Councilmember Chris Burnett urged public meetings almost a year ago without success, and the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts is working on ways to mitigate the appearance of the toll lanes.
Design of the I-285 top end express lanes is still in the preliminary stage, but GDOT is already acquiring right of way. An environmental study to help determine where the toll lanes would go and the best places for access points is also in the works.
GDOT is seven months behind in sharing the proposed plans for the I-285 toll lane, Deutsch said. When GDOT hired a new engineering consultant for the I-285 top end toll lanes this year, state officials said they were forced to push back planned public open house meetings until next year.
The Dunwoody City Council has requested Tim Matthews, program manager for GDOT, to brief them about the toll lane projects two times this year. At the latest meeting in October, Matthews said public community meetings are planned for next spring or summer.
Deutsch said she understands the I-285 toll lanes are intended to alleviate traffic congestion and benefit metro Atlanta and the region.
“But that’s not my constituency,” she said. “My obligation is to my constituents and not to a multibillion-dollar project that may make everything worse for them.”
What could happen to Georgetown?
The Georgetown community includes the Kroger-anchored Georgetown Shopping Center near the Chamblee-Dunwoody Road interchange. The Dunwoody Pines Retirement Community and the Ashford Academy school are adjacent to the shopping center.
To the west of the interchange and on both sides of the interstate are dozens of single-family homes on such roads as Old Spring House Lane and Brawley Circle. They are separated from I-285 only by a thicket of trees. When the trees are bare, motorists driving along I-285 can readily see the 40 townhomes of the Chateau Club townhome community.
“There is no way this project is going to have a positive impact on these neighborhoods …,” Deutsch said. “Because of the magnitude of this project, it is hard to take a wait-and-see attitude.”
The possibility of elevated ramps and lanes worries Kent Nichols, president of the Georgetown Recreation Club that has been around for 50 years.
The private club’s swimming pool is just dozens of feet away from I-285 and separated only by a fence and a small cluster of trees. Any I-285 toll lane development along that section of I-285 would likely mean eating into that small dividing piece of land, Nichols said.
“It would kill us,” he said. “Especially if they put elevated lanes over us. It would be a hazard to the pool. You can’t have a truck fall into the pool.”
Matthews of GDOT told the council last month there has been no decision where the elevated lanes will go, but engineers are looking for ways to minimize impacts on property owners. He said about 300 parcels have been identified as needed for the I-285 toll lanes. The state has so far purchased two properties, he said.
The Georgetown Recreation Center is open to all residents and has been a popular spot for families to bring their children to participate on the swim team. People from throughout the city also come to congregate over the summer months at the club for recreational swimming, tennis and socializing, Nichols said.
“It would be a huge loss for the community and the neighborhood if the state were to encroach on that property,” he said. “But we haven’t heard anything specific. We haven’t been contacted by GDOT or by the city. We would hope they would come and talk to us and work with us to preserve that part of the community.”
GDOT officials will come speak to neighborhood groups and homeowners’ association when requested. Deutsch said she is working on setting one up for Georgetown residents and plans to reach out to state representatives to ask for help getting more information to the public.
“To me, there are more unanswered questions than answers,” she said. “To move forward on a project this impactful and go to design, full blast ahead, without public input is irresponsible.”