DUNWOODY — The Georgia Department of Transportation is wrapping up a series of public meetings for input on its plans to bring 18 miles of express lanes to the top end of I-285.
The project, originally estimated at $5 billion, would build barrier-separated express lanes in each direction along I-285 from Paces Ferry Road on the west to Henderson Road on the east, with connections to I-75, Ga. 400 and I-85. Express lanes would also be built on Ga. 400 from south of Glenridge Connector to the North Springs MARTA Station.
GDOT held a series of public information meetings in January and will accept feedback online at majormobilityga.com/projects/topend/ until Tuesday, Feb. 25.
GDOT says the express lanes will reduce commuter delay by more than 6,000 hours each day and provide more reliable trip times. GDOT officials point to the success of its existing express lanes on I-85 and I-75.
In its first year, the Northwest Corridor in Cobb County saw its rush hour period decrease by one hour in the morning and evening, according to GDOT reports. Travel times are 20 percent faster for the 27,000 trips in the express lanes each day. Drivers in the traditional lanes see a benefit too, with travel speeds up to 20 miles per hour faster than before the express lanes.
The impact of the I-285 express lanes could be even greater because they’ll run both ways, GDOT Communications Director Scott Higley said.
Preparing for population growth
The express lanes are needed not only to relieve existing traffic but to prepare for the region’s future, Higley said. The metro area’s population is expected to grow by 2.4 million over the next 20 years, according to estimates from the Atlanta Regional Commission.
“If we build more lanes, they just fill up,” Higley said. “We’ve done that for decades. and you just end up with a wider traffic jam.”
By setting pricing based on demand and allowing bus riders and approved vanpools to use the express lanes for free, the project will encourage people to think differently about their commute, he said.
This enthusiasm for the project is not shared by all. A Change.org petition opposing the project has garnered 1,400 signatures, including Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Deutsch and City Council members John Heneghan, Pam Tallmadge and Tom Lambert.
“I would like to see the whole 285 Managed Lane Project reevaluated for effectiveness and value added,” Deutsch said in a recent statement. “I believe that there are better strategies to reduce traffic congestion on the Top End. There is a huge need to mitigate the impacts this project is going to have on the communities abutting the interstate.”
Residents near the project have raised concerns about noise, air pollution and property taxes. Dunwoody’s Georgetown community, just north of the highway, could be heavily impacted.
In response to concerns, GDOT has promised to evaluate noise barriers as part of the project. As the environmental field work and roadway design moves forward, nearby property owners and renters will be notified of the opportunity to participate in noise barrier discussions.
Higley also emphasized GDOT only exercises eminent domain after exhausting all other remedies to settle with property owners.
Another common criticism of the express lane project comes from those who would rather see the money go to public transit or would like to see the designs incorporate bus rapid transit (BRT).
Higley noted GDOT’s hands are somewhat tied by the state constitution, which does not permit gas tax revenue to be spent on transit, and that the express lanes will benefit transit riders, as buses will enjoy the benefits of faster travel times.
State Sen. Sally Harrel, speaking before the Dunwoody Homeowners Association on Jan. 26, said she was unhappy with the express lane project and would be looking into a constitutional amendment to unlock transit funding.
“The more I see it, the more I don’t like it,” Harrel said. “Granted, we have got to do something. The reason we’re going with toll lanes is because … by the Georgia Constitution, GDOT cannot spend money on transit, so I will be filing a bill for a constitutional amendment to change that, because I believe our Georgia Constitution is holding us back.”
Harrell acknowledged it probably will not happen this year but said it was time to start the conversation.
The Top End Express Lanes Project is still in the early conceptual stage. GDOT recently announced it would be pushing back the timeline by a few years and splitting up construction into separate projects.
Before construction of the express lanes, GDOT plans to complete three smaller projects: adding westbound collector lanes between Chamblee Dunwoody Road and Ashford Dunwoody Road, changes to the interchange of I-285 and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and extending the auxiliary lane between Roswell Road and Riverside Drive.
These projects would be completed between 2021 and 2024 and lay the groundwork for the express lanes. The east segment of the express lanes, from Ga. 400 to south of I-85, is slated to go to construction in 2023 and open to traffic in 2028. The west half would begin construction in 2026 and open in 2032, according to the latest timeline.
Current plans place two lanes in both directions between I-75 and I-85 with single lanes on either end. GDOT is in the process of determining where the access points will be located along the route.
The $11 billion Major Mobility Investment Program, which includes the I-285 Top End Express Lanes, is a separate project from Transform 285/400. The Transform project is focused on the interchange at I-285 and Ga. 400, including new flyover ramps, new collector lanes, bridge reconstructions and a new diverging diamond interchange at Abernathy Road.
Transform 285/400 began construction in February 2017 and is slated for completion late this year.