Ga. 400 project set to make winners, losers out of N. Fulton cities

It’s shaping up to be a win-some, lose-some proposition for local leaders who want the state to change its plans regarding express lanes that will be built on Ga. 400.

In Sandy Springs and Roswell, city leaders are lauding the Georgia Department of Transportation’s work to respond to residents’ feedback and city requests regarding the once-in-a-generation project set to add 16 miles of toll lanes.

But in Alpharetta, and for leaders of the Fulton County Schools, the road to compromise may not be as smooth.

GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry said in a Sept. 3 letter that the department was “very perplexed” by an August proposal from Alpharetta that suggested moving bridges and interchanges. McMurry added that GDOT had made several changes at Alpharetta’s behest, but the latest were “new and different from the past two years of collaboration.”

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

Alpharetta now wants to add an interchange at Encore Parkway, but McMurry’s letter says GDOT was asked to remove it from the plan in 2017.

Alpharetta Mayor Jim Gilvin said Friday he was surprised to see McMurry’s response. After all, he said, the mayor and council had not taken a formal position on the Encore Parkway interchange until August.

“We’ll move forward,” he said. “We’ll figure out what the miscommunication is and we’ll clear it up.”

The school district has also asked for changes it does not appear to be getting — notably, that the Ga. 400 lanes be moved further west, to avoid coming closer to Woodland and Dunwoody Springs elementary schools in Sandy Springs.

GDOT officials have said moving the lanes west is a nonstarter; Fulton school district spokesman Brian Noyes wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday that “every inch the construction” moves closer to Woodland and Dunwoody Springs “increases the cost and risk of mitigation for our schools.”

Fulton schools superintendent Mike Looney previously told the AJC that the district might have to spend up to $10 million because of the project. He said moving lanes closer to campuses makes the schools more susceptible to a shooting or someone driving explosives on to school property.

The school district has declined to say how it arrived at that cost, but consultants have recommended money for things like “reinforcing exterior building walls and reinforced doors and glass windows,” Noyes said.

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

Looney sent parents in the roughly 100,000-student district a call-to-action email Sept. 5. He gave parents an email address and phone number for GDOT, then he asked them to express their opposition to GDOT’s express lanes plans.

A week later, GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said they had received about 20 emails and had no information about the number of phone calls received.

Project may be last on Ga. 400 for decades

The 16 miles of toll lanes that will be built on Ga. 400 between the North Springs MARTA station and McFarland Parkway will transform traffic in the area. The project represents MARTA’s first step in a larger expansion north, with the agency adding four bus rapid transit stations along the road.

For those in North Fulton, the project will impact every daily commute, whether it’s a trip to the grocery store or a white-knuckled drive to the airport.

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

Many mayors are worried that the state won’t improve Ga. 400 for decades after this project, so cities are trying to make the most of it.

The negotiations on the $1.6 billion project have been ongoing for more than a year, and have been unusually public as cities jockey for their preferred outcomes. In addition to the Encore Parkway interchange, Alpharetta's letter asked for a dedicated flyover lane and structured parking for MARTA at North Point Mall, an area of expected growth in the city.

Credit: City of Alpharetta

Credit: City of Alpharetta

Gilvin said at an August meeting that the Ga. 400 proposals would worsen traffic in the city.

“And that’s a hard sell,” Gilvin said.

Council members said at the meeting that they thought they were providing viable alternatives for GDOT to work with.

Not all cities have been as frustrated as Alpharetta.

“By golly, Roswell was able to come to a plan,” Gilvin said in August.

 ‘It would be criminal’

Roswell leaders got what they wanted when the City Council voted Sept. 9 to shift its plans and funds so the city gets a new interchange at Holcomb Bridge Road. While it will cost at least $60 million, the city will only have to chip in $15 million — less than GDOT originally asked for the project. The road is congested because it’s the city’s only access to Ga. 400 and sees 70,000 vehicles a day, which makes improving the interchange vital, leaders said.

“As cities,” said Roswell’s deputy transportation director Rob Dell-Ross, “we know that once this project is complete, it’s going to be a very long time before GDOT pays attention to anything on Ga. 400.”

Roswell had been planning its Big Creek Parkway project to help east-west traffic congestion around Holcomb Bridge. But the city paused in November to consider how to partner with GDOT to improve traffic and build a BRT station at the Ga. 400 interchange. Since then, Roswell adjusted its Big Creek plan and freed up money for the Holcomb Bridge project.

This new plan is different than what residents approved in the 2016 transportation sales tax (TSPLOST), which angers some residents. “It’s criminal for us to have to pay for improvements on a state route,” said Lee Fleck, a former City Council candidate and frequent meeting attendee.

Mayor Lori Henry said claims of breaking promises miss the point.

“I will tell you this: It would be criminal for this Council not to look at the new situation that we have on our hands,” Henry said Monday. “It would be criminal.”

Roswell is farthest along in its negotiations with GDOT. Alpharetta was the most recent to put in a slew of requests large and small. The agency has warned that big changes probably aren’t going to happen because it has limited time to get the plan approved and quickly out for bid.

But one big change was approved in Sandy Springs, which wrote to GDOT in June with its request. The city said lanes that would have gone over Northridge Road with sweeping flyover bridges were problematic. Instead, GDOT now prefers a plan that will send the lanes under an existing bridge that crosses Ga. 400. The change was made after public complaints from city officials and residents, who said the noise and appearance would affect their property values and quality of life.

“There were more concerns indirectly that we didn’t see up-front,” said Tim Matthews, GDOT’s program manager. “We went back to see if there were alternatives we could explore.”

The new proposal still isn’t final, Matthews said, but local leaders approved of the change. At a City Council meeting, Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul called it a “big improvement.”

“You have listened and you have responded,” Paul said to Matthews at the meeting.

READ | Ga. 400 expansion encroaches on Sandy Springs neighborhoods

The change to the plan at Northridge Road will require purchasing right-of-way from some properties that would not have been affected previously, Matthews said. It would also bring construction a little closer to Woodland and Dunwoody Springs elementary schools, which has concerned education leaders.

Matthews said he will continue to work with Fulton County Schools leaders about the road expansion. More public meetings with more complete plans will occur next summer.

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Despite some successful negotiations in Roswell and Sandy Springs, not all requests have been granted. GDOT is still exploring whether to build a second bridge adjacent to the Pitts Road bridge during construction there, which would require removal of several homes, or closure of the bridge and a detour, which is Sandy Springs’ preferred outcome. The bridge would need to be closed for five years, Matthews said.

“Even if we got everything we wanted, there’s going to be some challenges in making this all work,” Paul said.

Ga. 400 expansion

The Georgia 400 expansion project will add 16 miles of toll lanes between the North Springs MARTA station and McFarland Parkway at a cost of $1.6 billion. The once-in-a-generation project has left municipalities scrambling for last minute changes.

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