It’s ‘P’ for Pain in the ongoing I-285 horror show

It’s October and people are setting up their spooky Halloween decorations. But what’s really scary is what Georgia DOT recently dropped on us: Portions of the Top End Perimeter will be cut from five lanes to three for the foreseeable future.

Boo!

The equation for the next phase of the ongoing rebuild of the Ga. 400/I-285 junction is truly horrifying: 250,000 daily vehicles minus 2 lanes = gridlock squared.

Natalie Dale, GDOT’s communications maven and bearer of bad news, is warning drivers to expect delays if they traverse that stretch for the next eight months or so. With two of five lanes gone (one has already been taken away in sections) and no shoulder, there will be no give when some driver does something stupid. And you know they will.

In fact, taking that route will be like shooting craps.

“If you roll the dice and there’s a backup, it could be an extra hour,” Dale said. She swears she’s not trying to frighten folks. She’s just trying to set expectations in the motoring public.

Frustration. Confusion. Anxiety. Rage. It’ll all be brewing behind the dashboards of thousands of vehicles each day.

I’d advise Doug Turnbull, WSB-radio’s afternoon traffic reporter, to take a crash course in meditation so he can lead breathing exercises during rush-hour reports.

The project will replace three existing bridges while trying to accommodate a never-ending river of cars, semis and the ubiquitous vans with ladders. If one of those ladders falls from a truck then I-285′s throughput (to use a geeky engineering term) is screwed.

“We’re going to see lots of innocuous stuff causing backups,” Turnbull said.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

These lane closures were supposed to start more than a year ago but transportation officials, and the contractor, decided the project wasn’t far enough along to impart that amount of pain on the public. The highway brass decided that some of the collector-distributor highways being built along I-285 weren’t ready to take pressure off the interstate.

The project has long been a gleam in the eye of highway engineers (the AJC wrote about the plan back in 2014). The groundbreaking was in November 2016 and the expected completion date was mid-2020. Oh, the best laid plans.

There have been obstacles, of course, because any construction project is full of them. (Anyone redo a kitchen or bathroom lately?) The state added changes to the now $800 million plan; there have been weather delays (there are always “weather delays”), a pandemic, labor shortages, supply shortages and, ultimately, shortages in patience of those trying to negotiate the sea of orange traffic dividers and large yellow earth movers.

“It’s a massive work zone,” Dale said, “probably the biggest in Georgia history.”

Turnbull, who flies over this concrete confusion most days in a helicopter, said the design of the highway aims to get drivers exiting from I-285 earlier and the “collector” lanes that are built parallel to the highway should relieve much of the annoying backups.

Traffic on that stretch of interstate has been hampered by drivers trying to exit while co-mingling with those entering. Adding to the chaos was that many of those planning to exit look up from their phones to suddenly see their off ramp, so they must swerve across three lanes at the last minute.

During construction, drivers are baffled by new lane and exit closures and are often distracted while gawking at the construction or whatever else crosses their noodle. (Or maybe it won’t be a huge problem because they’ll probably moving at a snail’s pace.)

Humans are creatures of habit and irritation, or even pain, is often what it takes for us to be more cognizant of our surroundings.

“People are sort of on auto-pilot in the morning,” said Dale. “Until they are inconvenienced, they won’t pay attention.”

My guess is people will soon be paying attention.

Credit: Sandy Springs police

Credit: Sandy Springs police

The finished product is going to be pretty cool if you are wowed by flyover bridges soaring over other flyover bridges. (It’ll be sort of a Spaghetti Junction North.)

Rusty Paul, the mayor of Sandy Springs, likes to brag that “the crossroads of Atlanta is now 400 and 285; that’s where the economic activity is.”

As you might guess, the 400/285 junction is in Sandy Springs. Paul used the T-word, “transformational,” to talk about the project. “Once they get it completed, it’ll be amazing,” he said. Until then, he added, “There will be consternation and confusion, which leads to conflict.”

So, I asked, you’re looking at a light at the end of the tunnel, right?

Nah, he said. “There will be construction going until the 2030s.”

There will be extensions up Ga 400, along with “express lanes” (toll lanes, AKA “Lexus Lanes”) along that road and along I-285. The mayor spoke fondly of a future of bus rapid transit vehicles zooming along those highway lanes.

“My grandkids will enjoy this,” he said.