Toll lanes on Ga. 400 and top-end I-285 will come one to four years later than expected – opening between 2027 and 2032 — in a newly revised construction schedule. But some parts will be built sooner than that — including new, non-toll lanes on I-285 — and the overall $11 billion project and public input process remains unchanged.

The Georgia Department of Transportation says the changes came from construction industry input on the scale of the work and better phasing to allow time and attract bidders to smaller-sized pieces of the project. GDOT spokesperson Scott Higley and project manager Tim Matthews emphasized in a phone interview that the overall project is the same. “At a high level, you’re not going to see anything different,” Matthews said, while Higley added that GDOT has “unwavering” commitment to build the toll lanes.

Local city and school district officials appear to have been taken by surprise by GDOT’s Oct. 7 announcement of the revised schedule. Their reactions ranged from welcoming additional time for input on the projects’ highly controversial land-taking and other community effects, to expressing concern about even longer construction impacts.

“This is a surprise, but the news of additional time is welcomed,” said Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney.

Also delayed is a revolutionary plan to run MARTA buses, using a series of new stations, on the Ga. 400 toll lanes, which now would start in 2027 at the earliest instead of 2024. GDOT said it extended the Ga. 400 construction timeline specifically because of the extra work in making it accessible for MARTA buses.

MARTA spokesperson Stephany Fisher said that the transit agency’s officials work closely with GDOT and “understand that timing adjustments and corrections are sometimes unavoidable on major capital construction projects.”

Transit service on the I-285 lanes has been pushed as well in a multi-city study led by Brookhaven, but is not part of the formal plan at this point. Those lanes are now 10 to 12 years from opening in the new schedule.

The toll lanes project is separate from the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange reconstruction project that is currently under construction. That project, known as “Transform 285/400,” began in 2017 and is expected to wrap up in about a year. However, the toll lanes would run through the interchange area and connect with it. Especially on I-285, the revised toll lane schedule means the Perimeter Center area would see virtually continuous heavy construction on highways for 15 straight years.

Tim Matthews, GDOT’s toll lanes project manager.

The toll lanes are intended to speed traffic for both paying drivers and those in free lanes. They are part of a proposed metro-wide system that already includes parts of I-75, I-85, I-575 and I-675. The new section running through the Perimeter Center and Buckhead areas would run on roughly the northern half of I-285 above I-20, and on Ga. 400 roughly between I-285 and Alpharetta.

While the toll lanes eventually would be part of a unified, interconnected system, GDOT has divided them into subsections for planning and construction purposes. For example, the “Ga. 400” project includes only the part of the highway from the North Springs MARTA Station northward; the southern piece of Ga. 400 is within the I-285 project because it involves a lot of connection-building with that highway. And the I-285 part of the toll lanes was itself broken up into multiple sections, including east, west and top end.

Along with revising the construction timeline, GDOT also reworked the I-285 project sections. The local part of the Perimeter toll lanes now falls into two large sections named East Metro and West Metro, with Ga. 400 in Perimeter Center as the dividing line. The East Metro project includes I-285 between Ga. 400 and Henderson Road, as well as that section of Ga. 400 south of the North Springs Station. The West Metro project includes I-285 between Ga. 400 and Paces Ferry Road. There are no changes to the boundaries for the Ga. 400 project north of North Springs Station.

Each of those project sections has a separate, different planning and construction timeline, and those timelines are what GDOT is changing. However, some of the biggest reviews – and opportunities for public input – involve the entire highway projects, regardless of a particular section’s construction timing. For example, there is a federally required environmental review of such impacts as pollution, traffic and residential displacement. That review includes public meetings and comments, and is already underway for Ga. 400, while the I-285 review will begin with meetings in January. Those reviews will continue as planned.

Also continuing is property acquisition for right of way, one of the biggest controversies of the toll lanes proposal. GDOT previously said the Ga. 400 project alone will take more than 40 houses and other buildings in Sandy Springs, and more than 300 properties could be “affected” by the I-285 toll lanes.  Among the areas already known to be impacted are residential areas of Sandy Springs and Doraville’s Assembly site, and Dunwoody’s Georgetown area fears it could be on the list.

Matthews said that GDOT continues to acquire property ahead of time regardless of the construction timing of any particular section.

GDOT’s overview of the toll lanes and related projects is online here.

An overview of the new sections of the I-285 toll lanes project. The section of Ga. 400 to the north has a separate but connected toll lanes project. (GDOT)

New construction timelines

The original and new construction timelines for each section are:

Ga. 400 (north of North Springs Station): Originally planned to start in 2021 and finish in 2024. Now would start in early 2022 and open in 2027.

I-285: Originally planned to start in 2022 and open in 2028. Now split into two sections with different timelines, known as East Metro and West Metro.

East Metro I-285 (between Ga. 400 and Henderson Road, and including Ga. 400 south of North Springs Station): Start in 2023, open in 2029.

West Metro I-285 (between Ga. 400 and Paces Ferry Road): Start in 2026, open in 2032.

Matthews said there were different reasons for changing the Ga. 400 and I-285 schedules. For Ga. 400, the extra work of adding space for MARTA bus access points and stations “forced us to really look at that schedule” and add time, he said.

For I-285, Matthews said, consultants with construction industry figures cautioned that such big sections could be hard to bid successfully. The top end piece originally was, on its own, a $5 billion project. “You get less bidders and potentially no bidders,” Matthews said. By splitting it into two projects, the idea is that there will be more competition. Matthews said that issue had not come earlier in the process due to its phasing and the unique nature of the metro-wide toll lane proposal, which makes estimating likely bids tougher.

The current “Transform 285/400” interchange project is happening now because former Gov. Nathan Deal ordered it to be a priority. Asked whether current Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration played any role in the toll lane schedule changes, GDOT’s Higley said, “We’re obviously in lockstep with the Governor’s Office on all things,” but that he is “not aware” of any influence.

Free lanes coming sooner

While the overall toll lanes projects are delayed, GDOT said it will build certain parts of their proposed systems sooner to get ahead of the game and offer some traffic improvements. All of the local projects involve free-use lanes. Matthews calls them “early wins, things we can get done and have some early benefits.” They include:

I-285 westbound collector-distributor lanes: The dedicated lanes for interchange-users would run from Chamblee-Dunwoody Road to Ashford-Dunwoody Road in Dunwoody. They would be extensions of similar lanes being built now for the Transform 285/400 project. Construction would start in 2022 and open to traffic in 2024.

I-285/Peachtree Industrial Boulevard interchange: Improvements to the interchange near eastern Dunwoody include adding collector-distributor lanes. Construction would start in late 2021 and finish in late 2023 or early 2024.

I-285 westbound extra lane: The new lane would come from widening I-285 in Sandy Springs between Roswell Road and Riverside Drive. It is intended to serve drivers going between interchanges so they don’t have to weave through traffic, but anyone will be able to use it. The project also includes replacing the Mount Vernon Highway bridge over I-285. Construction would start in mid-2022 and finish in late 2024.

Matthews said that GDOT is still figuring out whether any of those projects will need a separate environmental review process or can be folded into the larger toll lanes review. Otherwise, in other aspects they are part of the project and would remain after the toll lanes are built.

Local officials react

A common reaction among local officials is the construction delay allows more time for input. GDOT also made that point in a press release, saying the delay offers “further opportunities to coordinate and collaborate with partners, such as DeKalb and Fulton counties, the mayors along the top end of I-285, and the ATL [transit board], about future transit and transportation endeavors.”

The Fulton County School System has concerns about toll lanes taking right of way from school properties in Sandy Springs, a still unresolved issue.

“The current plan has created concerns and this gives FCS the opportunity to continue our dialog with GDOT on mitigation strategies,” said Superintendent Looney in a written statement.

Fulton Schools Superintendent Mike Looney (Special)

The city of Sandy Springs has influenced several major decisions about lane and interchange placement in the conceptual plans. The city also has its own alternative proposal for an interchange location under consideration.

“The additional time could provide a wider scope of potential contractors and pricing,” said city spokesperson Sharon Kraun. “The delay will also extend the time our community will be impacted, but to what extent will be determined as GDOT moves forward with its program.”

Spokespeople for the cities of Brookhaven and Dunwoody said their officials are in contact with GDOT. But in Dunwoody, the toll lanes are also an issue in the mayoral campaigns of current City Councilmembers Lynn Deutsch and Terry Nall. Both candidates said the collector-distributors lanes to be built sooner in their city may be a bellwether for the entire project.

Deutsch said that the construction delay allows more time for officials to seek mitigations, but she also expressed concern about a lack of information on the new collector-distributor lanes.

“We don’t know if this is good or bad yet,” Deutsch said. “We haven’t seen any designs to see what the impacts are going to be on the communities and the businesses.”

Nall said the collector-distributor lane project could reveal more about GDOT’s overall toll lanes plan.

“[The process] should add helpful transparency to detail design information for the future elevated express lanes, as all lanes have to tie together at some point,” he said.

–John Ruch, Dyana Bagby and Hannah Greco

Correction: A previous version of this article gave an incorrect timeline for the I-285 westbound collector-distributor lanes.

John Ruch

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