Georgia is moving ahead with plans for toll lanes on the northern half of I-285 — and some residents fear the highway expansion will come right through their neighborhoods.
The Georgia Department of Transportation plans to add up to two lanes in each direction on the northern half of the Perimeter, with construction beginning in 2022. When the arc is completed six years later, it could slash travel times for hundreds of thousands of metro Atlanta commuters.
But commuters’ gains may come at the expense of property owners along the expansion route. GDOT expects to acquire or obtain easements for about 300 parcels for a key segment of the expansion, from Paces Ferry Road in Cobb County to Henderson Road in DeKalb County.
The agency may buy some parcels entirely while taking just a portion of others. But it’s unclear which properties will be affected.
That has residents worried about noise, lost property and declining values for homes that remain. They want details about GDOT’s plans, though it could be months before the information is solid enough to give them the answers they want.
“I feel like it’s a governmental process that nobody has any control over,” said Samantha Nowak of Dunwoody, who lives just north of I-285.
Such concerns are escalating as GDOT seeks to address metro Atlanta's traffic mess by widening highways in highly developed areas. In addition to the Perimeter, GDOT will add toll lanes along Ga. 400, where it expects to buy about 40 homes, mostly in Sandy Springs.
Spokeswoman Natalie Dale said GDOT tries to avoid buying property for highway projects because it makes them more expensive. But in corridors as narrow and developed as the Perimeter, it has little choice.
“When you look at the top end (of I-285), you’re looking at a very unique situation,” Dale said.
More than 240,000 motorists a day see plenty of the top end of the Perimeter. It’s one of the busiest and most congested stretches of highway in the Southeast.
To address the problem, GDOT is rebuilding the I-285 interchange at Ga. 400. It also will rebuild the I-285 interchanges at I-20 east and west of Atlanta. And it's building toll lanes — or "express lanes" — along the top half of I-285, from I-20 on the east to I-20 on the west.
The project is so big GDOT will break it into three segments. First, it will add one express lane in each direction on the east side of the Perimeter between I-20 and Henderson Road. Construction on that $784 million segment is expected to begin in 2022.
The state also will add one lane in each direction on the west side of the Perimeter, from I-20 to Paces Ferry Road. Work on that $423 million segment is set to begin in 2023.
That same year, GDOT expects to begin work on the $4.6 billion “top end” segment, which will feature two lanes in each direction from Paces Ferry Road to Henderson Road. The project also will include express lanes on Ga. 400 from the Perimeter to the North Springs MARTA station.
When completed, the new Perimeter lanes will serve as the hub of a 120-mile network of metro Atlanta toll lanes. More than half of that network is already finished — including lanes on I-75 and I-575 northwest of Atlanta, on I-85 northeast of the city and I-75 to the south.
The lanes have been a hit with many commuters. Since their opening in September, the I-75/I-575 lanes in Cobb and Cherokee counties have cut some residents' commute times by up to 45 minutes. Traffic in the "free" lanes also is moving faster.
“The improvement has been incredible,” said Ron Sifen, a Cobb community advocate who follows transportation issues. “Every day, people have a faster trip time.”
Sifen believes motorists who travel the Perimeter and Ga. 400 will see a similar benefit when those lanes open. But that’s not much consolation for some who live near the highways.
In Nowak’s neighborhood, residents fear homes and amenities such as the Georgetown Recreation Club — with its pool and tennis courts — could be lost to highway expansion. But the fate of specific properties is far from certain.
Dale said the design of the express lanes is in its early stages. When preliminary work is done early next year, GDOT plans to hold hearings to seek public feedback.
With that input, GDOT will do more design work, with an eye toward unveiling more specific plans by 2022. The public will get a chance to comment then, too.
But some properties are likely to be purchased no matter what the design looks like. Dale said GDOT has already begun reaching out to some of those property owners.
The lack of specifics has some residents on edge.
Last week more than 50 people attended a meeting on the Perimeter express lanes at Brookhaven City Hall — many of them from neighborhoods just south of the highway.
“The overarching concern is quality of life,” Brookhaven City Councilwoman Linley Jones told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s not just the taking of property, but intrusion into their peaceful enjoyment of their homes.”
Dale said GDOT is sensitive to homeowners’ concerns. She said the agency spent years studying ways to improve traffic in the I-285 corridor. She said it will take care as it finalizes its design.
And she said the agency will meet with neighborhood organizations and other groups to provide information as its available — even if it’s not information property owners want to hear.
“We don’t shy away from having the hard conversations,” Dale said. “We understand what it means to people.”
Why it matters
Georgia will spend $5.8 billion to build toll lanes along the top half of I-285 in coming years. State officials say it will help fix metro Atlanta’s traffic mess. Some residents fear the new lanes will undermine their neighborhoods.
I-285 EXPRESS LANES AT A GLANCE
From I-20 east to Henderson Road: One lane in each direction.
Cost: $784 million
Construction begins: 2022
From I-20 west to Paces Ferry Road: One lane in each direction.
Cost: $423 million
Construction begins: 2023
From Paces Ferry Road to Henderson Road: Two elevated lanes in each direction. Includes lanes on Ga. 400 to North Springs MARTA station.
Cost: $4.6 billion
Construction begins: 2023
SOURCE: Georgia Department of Transportation
Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.