The state’s plan to build massive toll lanes along I-285 and Ga. 400 continues to raise anxiety about local impacts, most recently from Fulton County Schools over possible land-taking. But in the world of transportation advocacy, the plan is drawing some envy, too – especially for using toll prices that vary with driver demand and for including a bus rapid transit line on Ga. 400.

“Honestly, if you had BRT running on dynamically priced roads with real stations … Atlanta will be a national model,” says Chris Dempsey, the director of the Boston-based advocacy coalition Transportation for Massachusetts. “People from Boston will be coming to Atlanta to say, ‘Teach us about transit,’ which is probably not what people from Atlanta are used to.”

The new “managed lanes” for Ga. 400 run on elevated ramps in this sample concept design from the Georgia Department of Transportation. Similar lanes would be added to I-285. (Special)

But before that happens over the next decade or so, the state must figure out how the “express lanes” will fit into neighborhoods. The early concepts have already rattled some officials in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs for possible land-taking and the idea of putting the lanes on ramps towering 30 feet or higher over neighborhoods and plugging into new interchanges onto such local streets as Mount Vernon Highway.

Fulton County Schools is the latest institution to voice concerns following a private Oct. 22 presentation from the Georgia Department of Transportation that showed possible toll-lane land-taking at Sandy Springs facilities, including a playground at Woodland Elementary and parking spaces at the district’s own headquarters on Powers Ferry Road.

“It’s … concerning information that we want our schools and community to be aware of,” Superintendent Jeff Rose said at a Nov. 6 Board of Education work session.

Possible right of way impacts from the toll lanes on Woodland Elementary School, as shown in a Georgia Department of Transportation presentation to Fulton County Schools. GDOT says no actual right of way decisions have been made yet and the details could change.

GDOT says that its toll lane plans are in the early concept stage and will change over time. In the case of the Fulton schools, GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale said, the property-takings were rough estimates done to fulfill a federal environmental study requirement.

“The info we showed to them is all subject to change,” Dale said. “Based on the conversations, we are already looking at changes that may avoid some of the schools altogether.”

Dale declined to immediately say what other properties GDOT foresees as possibly requiring right of way acquisition, citing possible open records law exemptions.

So far, GDOT has held no general public meetings about the toll lanes, saying the concepts are not ready enough. However, GDOT has met off-and-on privately with “stakeholders,” such as the school system and the city of Sandy Springs, for over a year to get feedback on some details. GDOT also says it will meet with any local organization, such as a homeowners association, but it does not proactively notify residents who might be affected.

The public meetings are finally coming in 2019. The Ga. 400 toll lane meetings will begin in the “first quarter” of the year, Dale said, and the I-285 toll lane meetings 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.

Paying for congestion

The toll lanes are part of a metro-wide network GDOT is gradually building. One section, called the Northwest Corridor Express Lanes, opened earlier this year along I-75 and I-575. The intent is to allow drivers to speed through congested highways on entirely separate lanes in exchange for paying a toll whose rate varies based on demand — a system called “dynamic pricing” or “variable tolling.”

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 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 would work similar to a streetcar line, with large buses at platform-like stops. That involves building bus stations and interchanges at sites to be determined.

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. Several local cities and the Cumberland and Perimeter community improvement districts are collaborating on a study of possible mass transit on that route as well.

The Northwest Corridor lanes are getting good reviews from drivers, according to media reports. That has caught the attention of Dempsey, the transportation advocate in Massachusetts, which doesn’t have the dynamic tolling system. He’s been sharing the Georgia stories on social media.

Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts.

As a former assistant secretary of transportation in his state’s government, and now director of a 70-plus-member transportation coalition, Dempsey has spent a lot of time thinking about how to deal with ever-growing traffic congestion. Dynamic tolling fits right in, he says, with the modern road-planning mantra that “we shouldn’t be building more lanes. Let’s manage the lanes we have better.”

The idea is that letting some drivers pay to avoid congestion will reduce that congestion for everyone, and brings in revenue from a highway system that is currently heavily subsidized by everyone’s taxes. While toll lanes have some unfairness — they’re more affordable to wealthier drivers — Dempsey says some states use the money to subsidize tolls for lower-income drivers and to pay for public transit.

And putting BRT on the Ga. 400 toll lanes would make commuting life better for everyone, he says, noting similar models have worked in such cities as Los Angeles. “You should be rooting for it,” he said.

At the same time, Dempsey said, it’s important for communities to ask questions about local impacts like traffic and pollution. And he had his own question about GDOT’s specific model, going back to that mantra about managing lanes rather than expanding them. The current trend, Dempsey said, is to first place tolls on existing lanes, then see whether there is truly a demand-related need to add more lanes and “eminent domain and take people’s back yards — and that’s the right approach.”

–John Ruch and Evelyn Andrews

John Ruch

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