The Fulton County School System is sounding the alarm about potential harm new toll lanes planned to run on I-285 and Ga. 400 could cause to Sandy Springs schools.

The school district is concerned about the Georgia Department of Transportation’s projects, which are planned to be built over the next decade and could take property from local schools. The projects involve elevated toll lanes that could tower 30 feet or higher over neighborhoods.

“While we are working in collaboration, this is, at the minimum, alarming to us and those schools that are affected,” said Bill Boyajan, the district’s director of land management, in a presentation about the project at the school board’s Nov. 6 meeting.

Public meetings about the Ga. 400 toll lanes are expected to begin early next year. The concept of the lanes has already drawn a mixture of support and skepticism from city officials in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, where improved traffic flow would be welcome but neighborhood impacts are a concern. The Perimeter Community Improvement Districts is involved in the planning as well as seeking mitigations for their appearance.

Early conceptual designs GDOT has presented to the district in an Oct. 22 private meeting show the transportation agency would construct lanes close to, or take property from, Dunwoody Springs Elementary, Woodland Elementary, Sandy Springs Middle, Riverwood International Charter School, Heards Ferry Elementary, the district’s administration building and North Maintenance Facility.

A possible new interchange specifically for the toll lanes has been discussed for Raider Drive, where Riverwood International Charter School is located. The school district did not discuss that possible project at the meeting. Possible interchanges on other local streets, such as Mount Vernon Highway and Hammond Drive, have been controversial with Dunwoody and Sandy Springs officials.

The concepts are preliminary and may change.

GDOT is currently rebuilding the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange to improve traffic flow and safety. The toll lanes are a separate project that would add even more lanes — four on each highway — in construction that could take a decade. The concept of the project is to allow toll-paying drivers to speed through the interchange in dedicated, entirely separate lanes.

The Ga. 400 toll lanes are tentatively slated to come first, with a construction start in 2021 and opening in 2024. They would run between I-285 — or possibly a bit farther south at the Medical Center area — and Alpharetta’s McFarland Parkway. The lanes are also intended to carry a new “bus rapid transit” route operated by MARTA, which is included in the planning.

On I-285, the toll 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 2022 and opening could come in 2028.

School board reaction

Board members and the district superintendent raised concerns during a Nov. 6 non-voting work session, which is archived in video online.

“It’s clearing concerning information that we want our schools and community to be aware of,” Superintendent Jeff Rose said.

Board member Julia Bernath said the district should have been made aware earlier about the potential school effects.

“We were quite taken by surprise by this information,” Bernath said. “It’s very disconcerting to me that they have not had bigger conversations.”

Gail Dean, another board member, said the district should be sure to stay in communication with GDOT and make sure the community is informed about the project.

“I feel like we are just at [GDOT’s] mercy, and the only way we are going to be able to affect any change with this is for the community to be one with us,” Dean said.

Dean said she hopes to the district is able to “negotiate some of this out of their plan” or come up with other options.

“It’s crazy and it will not be safe,” Dean said.

Public input to come

The concepts have had few public discussions, with most conversations limited to major project stakeholders. Natalie Dale, GDOT’s spokesperson, said she expects the public meetings about the Ga. 400 toll lanes will begin in the “first quarter” of 2019. Meetings on the I-285 toll lanes are expected to come “later in the year.”

The presentations will include concepts and alternatives, including a “no-build” option, Dale said. The public will not be presented with a done deal, she said.

“There is still the flexibility,” Dale said. “We are not going to go to the public with a concrete, [set] in stone” version of the plan.”

Boyajan said the district has offered GDOT use of Dunwoody Springs and Riverwood for the meetings.

–John Ruch contributed