Sandy Springs officials are offering formal input on plans to add “managed lanes” to I-285 and Ga. 400, including ideas for new interchanges with local streets and concerns about the ever-wider highways eating into neighborhoods and limiting mass transit alternatives.

“I like the idea of [recommending] minimally invasive solutions, and let the engineers figure it out,” said Mayor Rusty Paul at the May 16 City Council meeting, where officials discussed a preliminary recommendation letter they planned to finish within 48 hours.

A GDOT conceptual sketch of managed lanes running on elevated ramps or overpasses on I-285, as shown in a city of Sandy Springs presentation.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is just beginning its massive reconstruction of the 285/400 interchange, which will continue into 2020. But it’s already in the early planning stages for another, follow-up project adding “managed lanes” to both highways within the next decade. “Managed” means the lanes have some kind of restricted access, usually by a toll. The managed lanes are proposed as entirely new, separate lanes, with early sketches showing them elevated on columns on 285 and as regular surface lanes on a widened 400.

GDOT is already seeking early input from cities along the highways, Assistant City Manager Bryant Poole said at the May 16 City Council meeting. GDOT and city staff are proposing potential new interchanges to study, and the city is pushing for right of way to be left for transit and multiuse trails. Sandy Springs officials want one interchange location off the table – at Sandy Springs Circle – while debating whether to include one near the North Springs MARTA Station, which could be locally controversial.

The timeframe is long, with the Ga. 400 lanes estimated to start construction in 2022 and the I-285 version in 2024. But early right of way acquisition could start as soon as this year, and Mayor Paul said “time is of the essence” on giving input and direction to GDOT.

The Ga. 400 concept is especially controversial, as tree-clearing for the current 285/400 interchange reconstruction is already drawing negative reactions there. City Councilmember John Paulson said that “my neighbors are not happy about this [managed lanes plan]” and that he is concerned about further widening south of Spalding Drive, where the road would “encroach into the apartments” and start “biting into yards.”

“I’d like us to look at alternatives that don’t take so much of the land,” Paulson said. “I have fears that we’re really going to strip this corridor up to the river.”

Mayor Paul agreed and noted the conceptual designs have no room for MARTA’s proposed Red Line train or bus rapid transit extension along the corridor. The PATH400 multiuse trail is intended to eventually extend there as well.

“And there’s no design right now for transit… The footprint is getting pretty tight,” the mayor said.

Paul noted Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s recent comments about possibly putting downtown Atlanta highways in tunnels, “which I find interesting.” Poole said GDOT could study putting Ga. 400 managed lanes in tunnels or on elevated overpasses – basically anything to keep them out of neighborhoods, which is the general point city staff will make in the recommendation letter.

The letter also will recommend leaving right of way for “high-capacity transit” or a “MARTA system,” as well as multiuse trails, on both 285 and 400.

Possible managed lane interchange locations – which could be separate from regular highway access interchanges — also drew some debate and questions. Some early concepts for locations are as follows:

Possible I-285 managed lane interchanges

  • Perimeter Center Parkway at the Brookhaven/Dunwoody/Sandy Springs border, also known locally as the “bridge to nowhere.” GDOT recommended this location.
  • Sandy Springs Circle. An interchange here for either regular highway access or the managed lane has been discussed for years. GDOT specifically asked Sandy Springs to recommend a yes or no on the idea. The mayor and council said it’s a no.
  • Northside Drive/New Northside Drive. Already a highway interchange. A city staff recommendation.
  • Powers Ferry Road/Interstate North Parkway on the Cobb County side of the border. A city staff recommendation.

Possible Ga. 400 managed lane interchanges

  • Mount Vernon Highway. GDOT recommended this location. The road currently crosses Ga. 400 as an overpass that GDOT is reconstructing for the 285/400 interchange project.
  • Glenridge Drive or other roadway “somewhere around Pill Hill,” as Poole put it. A city staff recommendation.
  • Somewhere near North Springs MARTA Station, which is located at 7010 Peachtree-Dunwoody Road and already has a dedicated southbound ramp from 400. A city staff recommendation.

That North Springs area concept drew hesitation from City Councilmember Gabriel Sterling, who noted a longstanding promise to local residents that there would never be direct Ga. 400 roadway access through there. City Manager John McDonough pushed for allowing GDOT to study the general concept, but Sterling said, “I’m not open to evaluating it, potentially,” if local residents don’t approve.

Further work to decide whether that concept should go into the letter, and if so, how it should be worded, was a main reason the council did not immediately approve sending it out. Paul gave the 48-hour deadline for finalizing it.

The recommendations are for preliminary concepts that are part of GDOT’s early environmental study phase. The council’s discussion came during a “reports” section where items are not voted on, but gain consensus approval to move ahead to further action by city staff.

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