Residents listen to Georgia Department of Transportation consultants during an information meeting Tuesday in Doraville. GDOT is hosting a series of community meetings about its plans to add toll lanes to the top end of I-285. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com) —
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Georgia DOT rolls out plans for I-285 toll lanes

After years of major road construction across metro Atlanta, state officials are preparing for their biggest project yet: the $4.6 billion expansion of the top end of the Perimeter.

The Georgia Department of Transportation says building new toll lanes along I-285 could ease traffic on one of the busiest stretches of highway in the Southeast. It also would link the region’s growing network of toll lanes — allowing motorists to drive from Acworth to Buford at the height of rush hour while avoiding the worst traffic.

“This is a project of regional impact,” Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Natalie Dale said. “A quarter of a million people use this roadway.”

The expansion may be good news if you live in Acworth or Buford. But some residents along I-285 fear the project will encroach on their communities, displacing homes and increasing noise and local traffic.

“This project isn’t really to benefit us,” said Scott Gillispie of Chamblee. “It’s to benefit people from outside the Perimeter.”

Residents like Gillispie got a glimpse of GDOT’s plans at public meetings along the route this week. The agency gave an overview of the project, but details — including how many and which properties GDOT might acquire to make way for the new lanes — won’t come for months.

GDOT plans to build two toll lanes in each direction along the Perimeter between Paces Ferry Road in Cobb County and Henderson Road in DeKalb County. It also will build new toll lanes along Ga. 400 from I-285 to the North Springs MARTA station.

Such toll lanes have become a key part of Georgia’s effort to address metro Atlanta’s traffic mess. GDOT officials say building more free lanes doesn’t work because they quickly fill up with traffic. Instead, the state uses fluctuating tolls — the worse the traffic, the higher the toll — to keep traffic moving in the new “express” lanes. Those lanes also could become the backbone of a regional bus rapid transit network.

The proposed lanes on the top end of the Perimeter would be the lynchpin of a 120-mile network of toll lanes.

Two years ago GDOT completed the I-75 South Metro Express Lanes ($226 million) in Clayton and Henry counties. Last year it opened the Northwest Corridor Express Lanes ($834 million) on I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties, as well as a 10-mile extension of the I-85 express lanes in Gwinnett County ($140 million).

Still to come are toll lanes on the east and west sides of the Perimeter and on Ga. 400. Eventually, toll lanes could be added to I-20 outside the Perimeter east and west of Atlanta and on I-75 south of the city from the end of the existing lanes to the Perimeter.

It’s a massive investment in highway infrastructure — made possible in part by a gas-tax hike the General Assembly approved in 2015. The toll lanes on the top end of the Perimeter will be paid for in part with that money.

Construction of the top-end Perimeter lanes would begin in 2023 and end in 2028. In the meantime, GDOT must draft specific plans, conduct environmental studies and get public feedback to qualify for federal funding.

If this week’s public meetings are an indication, the new lanes may divide communities in more ways than one.

Doraville City Council member Stephe Koontz worries some affordable apartments may be displaced by the new lanes. But she supports the project. Doraville is one of several cities studying transit along the Perimeter — including possible bus rapid transit service in the new lanes.

“I realize this is very early in the project. We don’t know everything, what it’s going to be like,” Koontz said. “But this is a necessary project.”

Dunwoody City Council member Lynn Deutsch is no fan of the proposal. She worries about the impact on surrounding neighborhoods — GDOT expects to acquire or obtain easements for about 300 parcels to make way for the new lanes. And she thinks more transit — not roads — is a better long-term traffic solution.

“Our communities are suffering because of people who have chosen to live far out and do these massive commutes,” Deutsch said. “When you make commuting easier, more people will want to live far out.”

GDOT officials are listening to comments like that as they begin to move the project forward.

In September they’ll issue an official notice that they intend to proceed with the project. Then they’ll start the environmental review process and draft preliminary plans — including details such as which properties they expect to acquire.

They’ll roll those plans out next year and solicit more public comment. With that feedback, GDOT will draft final plans.

Pleasing everyone will be difficult as the state seeks to expand highways in highly developed areas. GDOT’s Dale said the agency will do what it can.

“We want (people) to come to these meetings,” she said. “We want to hear from them. In the end, as we design this project, our goal is to mitigate those concerns, where possible.”

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