The Georgia Department of Transportation has issued its formal response to questions and concerns from hundreds of residents and officials about its controversial plan to add toll lanes to the top end of I-285. The responses cover such topics as access points on local streets and the overall design and purpose of the project.

The responses follow public meetings in January to unveil preliminary designs for the lanes, which are intended to speed traffic as part of a metro-wide system, but would impact hundreds of properties and would turn some local streets into highway interchanges. Public comments were roughly split 50-50 for and against toll lanes, GDOT said. Most answers boil down to GDOT saying it is either studying the issue or considers the question outside of the project’s scope of discussions.

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

GDOT issued its detailed response in April. The input from the public meetings will be used to create a “more refined project concept” that will be presented in another round of meetings, possibly in early 2021. GDOT continues to accept and respond to public comments at TopEndExpressLanes@dot.ga.gov. To read the full report, click here.

GDOT plans to add toll lanes — separate from the existing highway lanes and in many places elevated on pillars — along the top end of I-285 and on part of Ga. 400 between Sandy Springs and Alpharetta. The intent to speed up overall traffic by allowing paying drivers onto the toll lanes. The Ga. 400 toll lanes would carry MARTA rapid transit buses as well, and a similar concept is being studied for the I-285 lanes.

The Ga. 400 proposal began earlier and is expected to start construction in 2022 and open in 2027.

The top-end I-285 project is split into east and west sections. The east section, between Ga. 400 and Henderson Road, is expected to start in 2022 and open in 2028. The west section, between Ga. 400 and Paces Ferry Road, is expected to start in 2026 and open in 2032.

Following the January meetings, GDOT said, it received 485 formal comments. Of those, 82 were in support; 109 were in conditional support; 250 were opposed; 33 were uncommitted; and 11 did not specify a position.

Responses

GDOT has touted toll lanes — which it calls “express lanes” — as a traffic congestion solution and has said their value is already proven by such recent examples as versions on I-75 and I-575. But its formal answer to a question about whether the I-285 project will perform as advertised in the long term was less committed. It says that “performance data” on existing lanes “indicate” improvements on reliability and “overall duration” of trips in both tolled and free lanes. “As the EL [express lanes] concept is relatively new in Georgia, research and data analysis are ongoing,” the response says.

A portion of a GDOT map showing in red the properties in the Georgetown community in Dunwoody likely to be impacted by the I-285 toll lanes.

Other big design points remain unknown, GDOT said, including where Georgia Power’s high-voltage lines in the right of way would be relocated, and how high the elevated lanes would be in any given spot — though the height will range from 30 to 120 feet. Noise barriers can’t always be built prior to lane construction, GDOT said; as for putting them on the elevated lanes, the agency is evaluating the “feasibility.”

GDOT said it is “evaluating the design changes necessary” to place a multiuse trail on a replacement of the Chamblee-Dunwoody Road bridge, as requested by the city of Dunwoody. However, it would not add another left-turn lane onto I-285 westbound, despite rush-hour backups there.

GDOT said it got comments both for and against its plan to turn Savoy and Cotillion drives into one-way streets to serve the toll lanes. The plan is “necessary,” but the configuration and number of lanes is being studied.

New access points for the toll lanes have been controversial, especially since GDOT says they must be different from the current entrances and exits for free lanes. The agency said it received multiple comments about eliminating, moving and adding access points, but showed little interest in altering most of them. The most controversial has been one proposed on Mount Vernon Highway over Ga. 400, due to possibly adding tens of thousands of cars to daily local traffic. GDOT said a traffic study will be done and alternatives are being studied.

One commenter asked how long it would take between property acquisition and construction and whether the land could become a park in the meantime. GDOT said it will demolish buildings on property upon acquisition, and will maintain but not improve such properties, which could be used for construction staging. However, the agency said a local government agreement could result in temporary green space.

Many other impacts of local concern, including air quality, water runoff and lighting, are part of ongoing environmental reviews, GDOT said.

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