Gridlock Guy: The latest for those that traverse the I-285/GA-400 interchange

The new GA-400/southbound exit ramp to I-285/eastbound opened last Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, next to Hammond Drive. The new positioning confused some motorists. Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter
The new GA-400/southbound exit ramp to I-285/eastbound opened last Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, next to Hammond Drive. The new positioning confused some motorists. Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter

Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter

Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter

Major traffic improvements have not been top of mind for most people, as the COVID-19 shutdown heavily decreased traffic volume. But a large such project has been churning for three years and continued to during the shut down. Now traffic volume is back close to pre-shutdown levels, again showcasing the need for the big enhancements being built in the Transform I-285/GA-400 project.

“In my lifetime, as an Atlantan, this is probably the second-largest project and it is really exciting,” morning drive WSB Triple Team Traffic anchor Ashley Frasca said on the latest WSB Traffic Podcast. Frasca said the reversible Express Lanes next to I-75 on both sides of town have been the largest road project she has seen.

“I’m always warning [motorists], especially in pre-dawn hours, that construction crews are always in and out of those travel lanes. It’s an active construction zone, as far as I know, 24/7,”  Triple Team Traffic morning drive Skycopter anchor Smilin' Mark McKay said on the podcast. “We’ve encountered some very unusual delays at very unusual times of the day.” McKay and the team specifically see surprise interruptions pace traffic to setup and break down lane closures. Motorists normally aren’t expecting shut downs in the wee hours of the morning and can get stuck, sometimes, for large blocks of time.

But that frustrating phenomenon hasn’t been all that rare since serious work began on an expansion and re-working of the busy Sandy Springs interchange in February 2017. Crews are having to build entirely new flyover ramps, bridges, and CD ramps (to sequester exiting and entering traffic from the faster lanes), in midst of two booming freeways that are adjacent to bustling commercial and residential zones. And unlike the Express Lanes projects for the northwest and southern suburbs, workers are having to wedge these new features with little wiggle room to build. So interruptions happen.

And that is why this project is about a year behind schedule. Georgia Department of Transportation originally scheduled the completion for this December. The target is now December 2021.

“That is not something we take lightly. That is not something that really is long-term acceptable, as far as how we deliver projects,” GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale shared on the same podcast. “This project has had its fair share of bumps in the road.”  Dale said that bad weather has slowed the timeline, but also, too, has the presence of underground water, gas, electrical, and cable lines. “When we get in the road to do a project and there are unmarked utilities, that can just throw a wrench.” This is another externality of working so tightly in a populated area.

But a positive aspect of the project’s delay has been the decision to go ahead and refurbish some bridges in the interchange. “We added scope to this project,” Dale said, explaining that they felt re-doing some bridges in the midst of the other closures would keep them from shutting them down after the main project ends. “You’re getting more bang for your buck, which adds a lengthening to the timeline.”

One such bridge is Peachtree Dunwoody Road over I-285, which has been reduced from five lanes to three in the super busy “Pill Hill” area. “When that bridge opens up next year...you’ll get two lanes in each direction and a turn lane in each direction,” Dale explained.

And as different parts of the project open at different times, they don’t always fit together perfectly. For example, one 95.5 WSB listener pointed out to us that the new GA-400/southbound flyover ramp to I-285/eastbound empties into the exit-only lane just before Ashford Dunwoody Road. That forces those drivers to have to jump out of that lane quickly, as others are moving into that lane to exit at Ashford Dunwoody. “The irony is, one of the main goals of the project is to reduce weaving.” Dale said that when the project ends that problem will be resolved.

Speaking of that new flyover ramp, we documented here how drivers got very confused a couple of weeks ago when the new GA-400/sb to I-285/eb opened and the old one closed without much fanfare or warning. GDOT sent out the press release on Friday, but they believe the decision to debut a new ramp on an early Monday morning was a misstep. “We absolutely - especially on this project - will do better to make sure people have ample warning of some of these milestones. Because we want to celebrate them just like y’all do.”

Dale explained this is different from the Express Lanes projects because those were entirely new systems and opened all at once. This I-285/GA-400 project involves a series of components tied into an open system, so they opened a new ramp and closed an old one, hence the confusion. “We’ve gone back to our contractor, our developer and said, ‘We missed the mark. This didn’t work.This is something that should have been celebrated and instead people were left scratching their heads.’”

Situations like ramps opening and closing can easily surprise Sandy Springs drivers and others passing through this zone. Folks also need to know that delays can pop up at any time, especially at night and on weekends. “We need [drivers] to stay prepared, because the more that they know - the more that we can communicate with them what’s going - the less of the inconvenience that their commute can become,” Dale said. Tune in on 95.5 WSB and Channel 2 Action News to plan your ride and run the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App on your phone to hear and see the latest closures.

Dale also urged people to practice caution in the area. Crews often work very close to passing traffic. “Travel like someone you love works there.”

And once this project ends, GA-400 tolled Express Lanes construction begins in 2022, with I-285 Express Lanes work starting in 2023. So brace yourselves, this overhaul continues for the long haul. Dale summed up the purpose of the whole project well: “We’re addressing conditions pre-COVID, but even the congestion now and the future congestion.”

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin' Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com .

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