The question of why building toll lanes was chosen over expanding rail transit is rising to the top of Sandy Springs residents’ concerns with the Georgia Department of Transportation’s plan to construct the lanes on Ga. 400 and I-285. GDOT set meetings to discuss generalities about the I-285 piece of the project as more impacts become known, including that it could affect more than 300 properties along the top end, including Doraville’s Assembly development.

The topic has become a focal point for the community. The Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods dedicated its annual meeting to the subject, inviting state Rep. Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs) to lead a conversation about the lanes. Residents at the meeting continued to push back against flyover lanes atop Northridge Road, the lack of rail expansion and the massive amount of property impacts expected.

State Rep. Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs) speaks at the front of the City Springs room at the packed Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods annual meeting April 22. (Evelyn Andrews)

Silcox, who has become one of the most outspoken officials on the toll lanes, said at the April 22 meeting that she’ll “fight” for mitigations like parks in areas where properties have been taken, sound barriers and for GDOT to change the plans to be less impactful, such as putting the lanes underneath the Northridge Road overpass instead of over top.

“Like you, I am very upset and concerned about this projects,” she said. “It is not too late for every single one of us to have input into these projects.”

The toll lanes projects are expected to start with Ga. 400, which would add two new barrier-separated express lanes in both directions alongside regular travel lanes in a project estimated to cost $1.2 billion and begin construction in 2021. The I-285 Top End Express Lanes project, estimated to cost close to $5 billion, would add similar lanes and is expected to begin in 2023.

GDOT will host seven meetings about the I-285 lanes in six cities across the top end, including Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs. The meetings will not include detailed drawings or maps and will instead be meant for the public to provide input on the project and to fulfill a technical requirement, the agency said in a release. Meetings with that specific information will come in early 2020.

Plans to implement bus rapid transit on both toll lane projects are in the works. On Ga. 400, MARTA is an official partner and stations are shown on the conceptual designs. On I-285, planning and funding has been left to the affected cities, who have commissioned studies that show it could be feasible. BRT is being pursued as a more affordable option than heavy rail, which has been ruled out as too expensive.

Some questioned why the state is making an investment in this project instead of expanding the existing MARTA lines.

“We’ve got a state of the art transit system right out there and it’s dead-ended,” a resident said, referencing the North Springs MARTA Station, the north terminus of the transit system. Expanding MARTA is “the answer,” and a lot of progress could be made at the price of the toll lanes, he said.

Silcox, the new chair of the General Assembly committee that supervises MARTA’s budget, MARTOC, said it is mostly due to cost. Transit cannot be funded by GDOT, but Silcox said she is looking into ways to permanently fund MARTA. She also expects the new umbrella agency The ATL to help streamline the process to create new options.

Around 40 properties, many of which are houses, would need to be demolished in Sandy Springs in one section of Ga. 400. The part of the highway south of the North Springs MARTA Station was recently shifted into the I-285 project and is on a later timeline. Property impacts for that project have not yet been officially revealed, but Brookhaven officials recently said they’ve been told by GDOT 300 properties are expected to be affected.

GDOT 18 months ago took 5 acres of Doraville’s gigantic Assembly mixed-use redevelopment for a massive toll lane interchange on I-285, according to the site’s developer.

Amid intense controversy over land-takings for the new toll lanes, GDOT has presented the project to the general public as still highly conceptual and too vague to show any detailed plans. Part of the controversy is that, despite those GDOT statements, there have been repeated revelations of early property purchases based on detailed designs shown to governments, property owners and special interest groups, with the Assembly taking and Doraville interchange the latest case.

A resident of Spalding Woods, a neighborhood along Ga. 400, said her home is not being taken for this project, but she is near others that area.
“This is just breaking my heart,” she said. “People have lived there since 1985, and they have their home paid off, and no matter what the DOT gives them, it’s not even enough to get back in the neighborhood.”

Following someone’s comment that the Transform 285/400 project is expected to save each person one minute in travel time each direction, another resident asked if the toll lanes are expected to bring a similar benefit. Transform 285/400 is GDOT’s massive project to rebuild the Ga. 400 and I-285 interchange.

“I’m just trying to figure out what the problem actually is. Are people going to sit on Ga. 400 for six hours? Three hours? Or is going to be one minute longer than they are right now?” he said. “I’m just wondering if you can be very explicit about what problem you’re actually solving so that we can understand why you want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars putting concrete in the air so people who live in Alpharetta can get downtown one minute quicker.”

Matthews did not cite specific travel times, but said GDOT’s indicate rush hour will get worse and people may increasingly turn to city roads and clog local traffic.

“Basically, the model is showing we’re going to have a breakdown in traffic,” he said. “If we don’t do anything, it’s just going to get worse.”
Residents of the Northridge Road area, where GDOT has planned flyover lanes atop the overpass, continued their call for the agency to rethink that plan.

GDOT has said the flyover lanes are needed due to space constraints and complications such as a Fulton County water line that would need to be relocated. Northridge is where the lanes transition from being on the outside of the regular lanes to the center.

Because the bridge is not wide enough to fit the lanes underneath it, the lanes have to go over the top. But residents think the impact they’ll see is worth rebuilding the bridge to fit the lanes underneath.

“We’re paying for that project through our life savings being wiped out or diminished by a project that’s going to put this ugly, urban expressway in the middle of a residential community when we know…it can go under the bridge,” one resident said.

Matthews said he has been speaking with the city of Sandy Springs and Councilmember John Paulson, who has also been pushing for that to be changed. Matthews has instructed GDOT staff to take a look at the area to see if something else could be feasible.

Another change could be moving a planned I-285 toll lanes interchange from Mount Vernon Highway to Crestline Parkway, an L-shaped road that connects Peachtree-Dunwoody Road and Mount Vernon Highway to the east of Ga. 400. Residents of Crestline have pushed back on that idea since it would require eight townhome units to be demolished and would construct lanes next to the remaining residences. GDOT also requires that the city of Sandy Springs pay for the difference between the two options, a cost of $23 million.

“It’s a beautiful, small street now,” said a resident at a March 26 meeting with GDOT. “This would ruin it.”

Brian Eufinger, a board member for the Aberdeen Forest Homeowners’ Association, said that neighborhood is pushing for the Crestline option to be chosen.

“It’s unfortunate” eight houses would be demolished to use Crestline, Eufinger said. “But there’s costs to everybody. There’s no win here.”

—John Ruch and Dyana Bagby contributed