Emergency vehicle access is being highlighted by Dunwoody City Councilmember Lynn Deutsch as the latest concern to emerge in the local controversy over toll lanes planned for Ga. 400 and I-285.

Deutsch raised the issue during a discussion at the May 5 meeting of the Dunwoody Homeowners Association, where she urged resident to press for mitigations. She said the toll lanes will have a big effect on area cities with little traffic reduction, though the Georgia Department of Transportation later said that local congestion improvements will be significant.

Dunwoody City Councilmember Lynn Deutsch

“This does not improve your quality of life, and, in the meantime, it could potentially have a pretty negative impact on the communities that abut the interstate,” Deutsch said of the toll lanes plan.

She raised public safety concerns about the plan, which involves toll lanes that are separated from the highway by walls and dedicated entrances and exits that can be miles apart.

“If you have these long stretches, ambulances will have to go backwards,” Deutsch said. “If this isn’t safe, the federal government might not even approve the plan.”

GDOT is already operating similar toll lanes in other parts of the metro area, including I-75 and I-575 in Cobb County. GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale said the agency provided “several months” of training to first responders and the state’s own Highway Emergency Response Operators (HERO) program about navigating the toll lane system to get to accidents and breakdowns.

“Robust testing was performed to ensure proper coordination of gates, lights and signage” for emergency access on the existing system, she said. GDOT also produced a “safety reference guide” about how to access toll lanes and contact information for local towing companies, among other information, she said.

Deutsch also discussed local concerns about the unclear status of sound-blocking walls for the toll lanes. She said citizens should call their local representatives and demand the sound walls be made a mandatory part of the construction, and that the walls should go up in the first stage of construction.

The bigger context Deutsch raised was the toll lanes’ relatively minor impact on traffic congestion.

“I’m not even really sure who at this point could stop it, but people need to be aware,” she said. “This is not going to make a significant difference for people who have massive commutes.”

However, there appears to be some confusion about GDOT’s various projections for the toll lanes’ traffic effects, all of which are estimates with some incomplete elements.

Deustch said the toll lanes would reduce Ga. 400 and I-285 area traffic by just 5%. However, that percentage appears to be taken from a GDOT web page about the entire “Major Mobility Investment Program,” of which the local toll lanes are just one part, and which includes projects across metro Atlanta as well as in Savannah and Macon. Other projects to be built elsewhere in the program include highway widenings, interchange reconstructions and commercial vehicle lanes. GDOT estimates the entire program will have a “5% reduction in delay and travel time savings in the year 2030” as compared to the conditions of doing nothing at all.

The local toll lanes should have a much more positive impact, according to GDOT estimates. Its projects for the year 2040, according to Dale, are a 38% reduction in travel times on the toll lanes as compared to regular “general-purpose” lanes.

GDOT officials have previously said they expect the toll lanes to improve traffic speeds on the adjacent non-tolled lanes as well. However, Dale said GDOT does not have an estimate for that improvement yet. But it does have some early results from the I-75/I-575 toll lanes.

In the first eight months of operation, those toll lanes showed more than 4.2 million “trips” with travel speeds 30% faster than the general-purpose lanes, according to GDOT in a press release that did not fully explain the calculation.

Dale noted that the Cobb toll lanes are constructed to be reversible, one-way lanes, while the I-285 and Ga. 400 lanes would run in both directions, so “we expect to see even better results” locally.

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.

The toll lanes are a completely separate project from the “Transform 285/400” interchange reconstruction project that is underway.

–John Ruch and Katia Martinez

John Ruch

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