The Georgia Department of Transportation disappointed a crowd of residents and elected officials eager to hear about possible land-taking at local schools for a massive toll lane project at a Jan. 14 meeting, taking no direct questions and offering fewer details than already had been shown in a private presentation to Fulton County Schools. Instead, GDOT essentially presented a Toll Lanes 101 lecture and sales pitch for a series of future meetings that it says will have some of the desired information, including one in Sandy Springs March 12.

“This is an informational meeting just to get you guys ready for what is to come,” GDOT’s Tim Matthews told a crowd of about 80 people at Dunwoody Springs Elementary School in Sandy Springs – one of the Fulton County schools whose site could be affected by the new Ga. 400 toll lanes. He gave an overview of the plan for separate, largely elevated toll lanes on I-285 and Ga. 400 with little local detail.

Tim Matthews of the Georgia Department of Transportation gives a presentation about the plan for toll lanes on I-285 and Ga. 400 at a Jan. 14 meeting at Dunwoody Springs Elementary School, hosted by Fulton County Schools. (John Ruch)

Gail Dean, a Fulton Board of Education member, was among the officials who asked GDOT to hold the meeting after the agency privately told school administrators last fall that the toll lanes could impact its properties. Dean said afterward she expected more information and that GDOT surprised them with the tightly controlled, no-questions format, which likely will be repeated at a second Fulton County Schools meeting scheduled for Jan. 16 at Riverwood International Charter School.

“It’s difficult to have a meeting and have no drawings and no public comment,” Dean said. “…We were told right before the meeting it would not be an interactive meeting.”

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. This information was among the specific school-related impacts not presented at the Jan. 14 public meeting.

GDOT’s private presentation included estimated right of way impacts on several Fulton public schools and other district property, but that was not shown or mentioned at the Jan. 14 public meeting. GDOT has repeatedly refused to fulfill open records requests from the Reporter for proposed property-taking information, citing varying and sometimes contradictory grounds, some of which an attorney on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation has called unlawful.

Matthews said that a planned round of public meetings in February and March about the Ga. 400 toll lanes will show full conceptual designs and proposed right of way impacts. “Everything we’re showing you at that point could change for the better,” he added, in one of several statements aimed at quelling local concerns. Meetings about the I-285 toll lanes will be begin later this year, he said.

The local meeting in that series is scheduled for March 12, 4:30-7:30 p.m., at Sandy Springs City Hall, 1 Galambos Way. The other meetings are Feb. 28 in Alpharetta, March 5 in Cumming and March 7 in Roswell; click here for the list of times and locations.

The project and input

GDOT’s “express lanes” or “managed lanes” project would add four new toll-only lanes along I-285 and Ga. 400 in the Perimeter Center area over the next decade, with the intent of improving overall traffic flow. The Ga. 400 lanes also would carry a new MARTA bus rapid transit route.

The early concepts for the toll lanes 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.

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)

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, and occasionally at local City Council meetings. 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. GDOT has one such meeting scheduled for Feb. 10 at the Dunwoody Homeowners Association.

The Dunwoody Springs Elementary meeting was another such by-request meeting. While a large number of GDOT officials attended, there was no formal or direct public input method. Instead, Fulton County Schools handed out cards for written comments, which it said would be forwarded to GDOT. Natalie Dale, a spokesperson for the transit agency, said GDOT would respond to any questions on the cards, but they will not be part of the official project record, unlike comments at GDOT’s own future series of meetings.

GDOT provided general contact info for the Ga. 400 toll lane project only, including a website here, a voicemail “hotline” at 404-556-9816; and an email address at 400expresslanes@dot.ga.gov.

On the issue of right of way, Matthews spoke only generally about policy and process. He said GDOT is attempting to acquire as much needed property as possible before putting either toll lane project out to bid, to make work faster and easier for the eventual contractor. He also spoke of GDOT’s intent to avoid property-taking and using existing right of way whenever possible, but when it comes to the Perimeter Center area, he noted, “There’s not much [existing right of way] out there… It’s a very densely populated area.” That’s one reason the toll lanes would be elevated 30 feet or more over existing highway lanes in some places, he said.

Matthews also spoke only generally about GDOT and MARTA’s unique attempt to build bus rapid transit into the Ga. 400 toll lanes. He gave no details about the status of that proposal or the locations of its access roads and stations.

Audience response

The audience received the meeting politely, with no one openly challenging its format, and many people applauding at the end. However, a number of attendees said they were already aware of the general toll lanes concept and they expected more information and to have questions answered.

Trisha Thompson, a director and former president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, said she had heard GDOT would not provide funding for landscaping buffers along the lanes, an issue she hoped the meeting would clarify, which it did not.

The audience begins filing into the Dunwoody Springs Elementary School meeting about the toll lanes. (John Ruch)

“I hate it. I’m as unhappy as can be,” Thompson said of the toll lanes proposal before the meeting began. “These people have concrete and they have asphalt, and they’re driving it right through Sandy Springs.”

Some other residents said they wanted to air concerns about the toll lanes’ impacts on home values, both directly by looming over back yards, and indirectly by lowering the quality of local school facilities and discouraging parents from sending students there.

Dean, the school board member, and Julia Bernath, the board’s vice president, said they believe GDOT knows more than it revealed.

“Surely, they have drawings farther along,” said Dean, adding that the board still has not directly seen the right of way impacts presented to Fulton County Schools administrators.

Bernath said she’s concerned about the relative speed of the process toward construction and that right of way decisions may be close to fixed before public input. “How much flexibility will they have?” she asked.

Fulton County Board of Education member Gail Dean, left, and Vice President Julia Bernath give an introduction at the Jan. 14 toll lanes meeting. (John Ruch)

State Rep. Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs) questioned why MARTA officials didn’t join in the presentation to address the bus rapid transit plan. “People in this area want to hear from MARTA,” she said.

Sandy Springs City Councilmembers Chris Burnett and John Paulson said they understand from the city’s own sometimes controversial road projects that uncertainty can be a natural challenge in construction planning. But they both expressed a desire to get more information and give further input about the toll lanes.

“We saw some earlier concepts where they were just taking more land, and land, and land,” said Paulson. He would like GDOT to consider how much money it would save by not having to seize Sandy Springs property in a hot real estate market.

Burnett said his constituents are concerned about possible property-taking, what kind of buffering for toll lane noise and light would be available, and where the new toll lane access interchanges would be “and what are the driving forces behind that.”

“Oftentimes, the greatest concern is concern of the unknown,” said Burnett, indicating an openness to good answers. He also said that the council has received no direct update on GDOT’s plans since a presentation a year ago, where councilmembers and staff made various, detailed suggestions and criticisms about toll lane access locations. “We’re curious, too,” he said.

John Ruch

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