Ga. 400 plan could cost Fulton schools nearly $10M for safety

As a deadline looms to cement plans for a Ga. 400 expansion through north Fulton County, leaders in three cities are still working to negotiate their wish lists with state road planners.

And a letter sent Aug. 26 revealed new concerns of the Fulton County school district and a gulf between what the state wants and the schools’ willingness to agree to it.

The Fulton County Schools’ superintendent said the plan to build Ga. 400 express lanes close to two schools puts students at risk. He said he would need as much as $10 million more from taxpayers to keep children safe.

The plan to build elevated lanes near schools potentially leaves the district with “very expensive steps that would need to take place in order to ensure a safe school environment,” Superintendent Mike Looney wrote in an Aug. 26 letter to Georgia Department of Transportation officials.

BACKGROUND | Ga. 400 future in North Fulton is negotiable — but not for much longer

Looney’s letter questioning the proposed design of the $1.6 billion project comes as elected leaders in Alpharetta, Sandy Springs and Roswell are voicing their own concerns to the road experts at GDOT. All hope state leaders will approve their requests for last-minute adjustments to the road plan.

But none have gone so far as Looney, who wrote, “students, their families and the neighboring community will end up being a ‘loser’ any way this progresses.” The three cities offered suggestions for their preferred routes and outcomes, but Looney did not offer any solutions beyond one that GDOT had already rejected as not feasible.

All the negotiations need to finish soon so GDOT can finalize the design by the end of the month. That’s the rough deadline so GDOT can send a plan to the Federal Highway Administration for environmental approval and stay on schedule. Then, the state will put the project out for bid.

The Ga. 400 expansion is the most transformative road project for north Fulton County in decades. The state plans to add 16 miles of tolled express lanes on Ga. 400 between the North Springs MARTA station and McFarland Parkway. It also represents MARTA's first step in a larger expansion north, adding four bus rapid transit stations along the road.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said GDOT has been cooperative throughout the process, but that isn’t enough to satisfy everyone.

“There’s going to be pain and agony and anger,” he said. “People’s lives are going to be disrupted.”

Under the hood

In Looney’s letter to Tim Matthews, who is managing the project for GDOT, the superintendent said any of the proposed designs present challenges for Fulton schools.

Looney told the AJC the proposals put students at Woodland and Dunwoody Springs elementary schools in danger. Under some plans, the edge of the highway would be less than 20 feet from school property. Looney said any plan that moves Ga. 400 closer to the schools is a problem.

“Most moms and dads … they don’t think about the effects of a road expansion on schools,” Looney said.

The superintendent worries that moving the road closer would increase noise and make the schools more susceptible to a shooting or someone driving explosives on to a campus: “Any of those scenarios are possible.”

Matthews told the AJC on Friday that he and GDOT would never build a road that would put children at risk.

He said he doesn't know exactly what Looney is concerned about, even though Matthews has been working with the school district for years before Looney took over the school district in June.

When asked if the estimate of nearly $10 million in school safety needs was right, Matthews said: “No actual conversations have occurred based on what exactly what the issue is … or cost around it.”

Roswell resident Trent Perry supports improvements on Ga. 400, particularly at its intersection with Holcomb Bridge Road. But he challenged the need for additional taxes to pay for school safety due to the road project.

“They tend to say they need more funding when they may or may not have a full study on the matter,” he said. “I think that needs to be addressed with a microscope.”

READ | Roswell OKs school zone speed cameras, mailing fines to drivers

Because neither the cities nor the school district are picking up the tab for the road project, they can encourage, guide and prod GDOT, but cannot make final decisions about the work. Many local leaders fear not being in control of something that could add extra traffic or noise to their communities. That has left cities to suggest things as small as the state planting shrubs and trees to control road noise and as large as not replacing a bridge so homes won't have to be destroyed to make space.

There have been months of back-and-forth discussions, along with several public outreach meetings, to hammer out details, all of which is more than usual.

“What that has done has got us to a point where we have zero (flexibility) in our schedule,” said Matthews. Construction is set to begin in 2022.

Todd Long, a former GDOT deputy commissioner and former chief operating officer of Fulton County, said that talks between state and local officials about road plans are usually frequent and private — for them to be so public is rare.

In those conversations, a tension has appeared between locally elected leaders’ narrow focus on constituent concerns and GDOT’s broader vision of regional connectivity.

“GDOT has to make a decision that benefits the state, and it’s their call, but they want to do so in a way that people in the corridor can happily live with the product,” Long said.

Cities’ way of right

In Alpharetta, Mayor Jim Gilvin sent an Aug. 27 letter telling GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry that the city wants to make changes as large as moving bridges and interchanges.

His requests include placing a direct access interchange at Encore Parkway, which leads to the Ameris Bank Amphitheatre and other attractions like TopGolf, instead of at Webb Bridge Road. He also wants a dedicated flyover lane and structured parking for MARTA at North Point Mall, an area of expected growth in the city.

Gilvin and council members said they have been frustrated by GDOT and MARTA’s inability to provide hard data about how the road plans impact Alpharetta.

“Sometimes what’s right for the region might not necessarily be the best for our residents,” Gilvin said.

Matthews said major changes at this stage probably aren’t going to happen because they need to get this plan approved and out for bid by the construction industry.

“When you start making significant changes, the industry cannot react to what we’re asking them to do,” he said.

READ | Ga. 400 expansion encroaches on Sandy Springs neighborhoods

Paul, the Sandy Springs mayor, wrote to McMurry in June, asking him for several changes to the Sandy Springs portion of the plan. They include a request to move some managed lanes to the center of Ga. 400, instead of on the outer edge of the existing road; that the Pitts Road bridge be rebuilt, instead of replaced; and that managed lanes run under the Northridge bridge instead of over it.

Paul said he had not yet received a response from GDOT regarding the requests, but Matthews said he plans on briefing the city about their concerns during a Tuesday public meeting.

“We may not get everything we ask for, but I think we’ll get some,” Paul said. “I give them a lot of credit for trying to work these things out.”

READ | Fulton adds rapid buses on I-285 to transit plan, vote in 2020 likely

The negotiations are further along in Roswell, where council members learned GDOT had already accepted several recommendations from the city. They include a request to separate northbound Old Dogwood Road and eastbound Holcomb Bridge Road to prevent weaving. But they didn’t get everything they wanted.

The biggest sticking point in Roswell now is the cost. GDOT asked Roswell to pay 60% of the $38 million price tag for improvements at Ga. 400’s intersection with Holcomb Bridge Road; the city would rather pay 40%. Roswell leaders have reconfigured plans for another road project, the realignment of Big Creek Parkway, to free up $15 million that could go to the Ga. 400 intersection. But the negotiations continue.

“I feel as though we’re 95% there,” Roswell Mayor Lori Henry said.

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Sandy Springs and Ga. 400 express lanes

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul wrote a letter to Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry in June asking for some changes to parts of the Ga. 400 express lane project that affect the city.

They include a request to move some managed lanes to the center of Ga. 400, instead of on the outer edge of the existing road; that the Pitts Road bridge be rebuilt, instead of replaced; and that managed lanes run under the Northridge bridge instead of over it.

Officials with GDOT say they plan to address those concerns at the Sandy Springs City Council’s Tuesday work session.

The meeting will be at 6 p.m. in the Sandy Springs City Hall, 1 Galambos Way.