The Georgia Department of Transportation’s official leading its proposed $1.8 billion Georgia 400 express/bus rapid transit lanes project, in partnership with MARTA, said the plan is a strong one to relieve traffic in the region, and the state is taking proper steps to carry out its mission.

In an interview with the Neighbor March 11, one day before the last of five public open house meetings regarding the plan, Tim Matthews, program manager for GDOT’s Major Mobility Investment Program, talked about the project and cleared up any misconceptions residents may have regarding it, including right-of-way acquisition.

The project is part of a plan to add 65 miles of lanes to a 16-mile stretch of 400, north from Interstate 285 to the Forsyth County line (two new lanes on each side of the highway). It is a component of the state’s 11-project {span}Major Mobility Investment Program announced by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2016.

The state plans to build the express lanes first from the North Springs MARTA station (Exit 5C) in Fulton north to about 0.9 miles north of McFarland Parkway (Exit 12) in Forsyth. The express lanes south of the MARTA station will be added after the 400/Interstate 285 interchange improvement project is completed in 2020, with construction expected to start in 2023. The proposed express lanes are expected to improve mobility and travel time reliability along the 400 corridor.

Residents have criticized GDOT for its plans to acquire some houses near 400 in Sandy Springs as part of the project, and for what they perceive is a lack of transparency and other issues regarding it.

Q: Can you provide a project overview?

A: The express lanes project is part of the larger program. One of the problems we’re trying to solve is congestion in the (metro Atlanta) region as a whole. This project focuses on congestion on 400 in particular, regarding express lanes. We’ve done that on several corridors on (Interstates) 75 and 575 (in Cobb and Cherokee counties) and on I-85 (in Gwinnett County) and on I-75 in Henry County (the Gwinnett express lanes are two northbound and two southbound but the northwest corridor and Henry ones are one-way each). We’re seeing huge success as far as ways to relieve congestion. This project starts at the North Springs MARTA station and will go north to (the) McGinnis Ferry (Road exit) with a new interchange and drop to one lane (in each direction) from there to McFarland (Parkway).

The express lanes will be in the center of the highway at Northridge (Road in Sandy Springs). Although we’re starting the express lanes at the North Springs station, eventually they will connect to the 285 express lanes once they are completed.

Q: How many homes will be acquired as part of the project and in which cities are those homes located?

A: The majority are at the beginning near the North Springs MARTA station. There’s about 20 or so on the west side of 400 and the same on the east side. That’s the most densely populated area. There are probably a couple of others down the line that we may hit based on the final design. You’re looking at 45 to 50 total. That number is not definite or total.

Q: How many other properties, meaning portions of lots or entire lots with homes on them, could also be impacted and in which cities are they located?

A: We’re currently vetting that. We have some right-of-way teams looking at the current layout, where it’s a right-of-way need or easement need. We’ve tried to be as transparent as possible to inform them of the impact. None of this is a done deal yet anyway. This is part of the process, to warn the public. Any property owners will be informed as we move forward. Those are the ones we know of for sure, right now. There may be more north of that.

Editor’s note: GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said most of the right-of-way portions the state will need to acquire for the project north of Sandy Springs are small pieces of land, “slivers of those properties.”

Q: Can you explain the process by which GDOT will acquire properties, including homes, for this project?

A: When it comes to acquiring properties for any (GDOT) project, we’re bound by federal laws by acquisition of properties. We treat these like a normal real estate transaction. We go through an appraisal process and go through an offer package is presented to the homeowner. If the homeowner disagrees, the homeowner has the right to get their own appraisal and make their own counteroffer based on that. Only as a last resort do we go through an eminent domain process.

Q: The residents living on Northgreen Drive in Sandy Springs who were informed their homes would be acquired as part of the project said they felt the private meeting GDOT held to inform them of the news was not transparent enough. Could you explain why GDOT took this approach? Also, some residents said they were under the impression GDOT was giving them six months to a year to move out.

A: Personally I think this was the best way. I don’t know where they got the notion they had to be out of their house in six months to a year. We tried to explain to them that this process regarding right-of-way acquisition, and it could take six to nine months for the negotiation process to be completed. That meeting was not required by federal law. We decided to be out front as far as informing them and to give them the one-on-one time to go over the project and help them understand the process.

Editor’s note: Dale said residents whose homes are in the right-of-way and will be acquired for the project will have at least 90 days from the date they are given a monetary offer for their home’s purchase before they have to move out, or 60 days or less from the date a transaction is closed, whichever is greater.

Q: What kind of design will GDOT use for this project and how much flexibility does it have in changing it from the current plan?

A: Our process for design is this is a design-build process. We do about 30 to 40 percent of the design and let the developer or contractor do the rest. We do this simply to get environmental clearance and understanding to put it out for bid for developers. We try to present a solution to minimize and mitigate. This is the first step of the process. We take all those comments we receive at these meetings and see if there are any comments with major concerns and we try to address those concerns with the design process. As it relates to the process, we’re early on in the environmental process. We will have another round of meetings as we further progress with the design. (Another design option is) the design bid-build ... one (where) we do 100 percent design on it, and the contractor bids on that design and builds on that design. The reason we use the design-build method is the contractor can bring a lot of innovation to the design beyond what we’ve already done.”

Q: So with the 400 express lanes project design, how much wiggle room do you have, especially when it comes to possibly sparing more homes from the plan’s path?

A: As we know it today, that area we are taking those homes in is very constrained. You’ve got corporations and residences that are lined up and back up against the (400) right-of-way. There’s also the 285/400 interchange project, so there’s not a lot of room, so we have to go to the outside (with the express lanes through most of Sandy Springs). But the rest of the project’s lanes will be on the inside (of 400), once you pass Northridge.”

Q: Some of the residents interviewed have complained about a perceived lack of transparency regarding this project. What is your reaction to that complaint?

A: Some folks are saying we haven’t been transparent in the process. We’re following our federal National Environmental Policy Act projects when it comes to these projects, and it follows an extensive level of public outreach. But we’re doing well beyond the outreach for a project like this. We’ve met with HOAs (homeowners associations), cities, counties (and) Rotary Clubs, in the neighborhood of 150 meetings in the last year and a half alone. I would love to do a lot more. I was at an HOA meeting (yesterday).”

Q: Some residents recently complained about how the express lanes will go over Northridge at that interchange. Is there a way to go under that road?

A: We believe this is the best decision to go over, and there are lots of reasons for that. But we’re going to cross all our t’s and dot all of our i’s. With the Northridge interchange, there’s a 48-inch water line servicing all of north Fulton, including Sandy Springs, and that interchange was just redone a few years ago, so we don’t want to waste money on redoing that interchange.”

Q: What’s the timeline for this project?

A: We don’t anticipate getting a contractor on board until late 2021, and from there it’s six to nine months for final design, and then start construction, with it completed by 2024.

Q: What else is important about this project?

A: (The) 400 (project) is not just express lanes/bus rapid transit lanes. It will also have four individual (bus) stations to be built by MARTA.”

Q: What impact have the express lanes already built on I-75 and 575 in Cobb and Cherokee, on I-85 in Gwinnett and on I-75 in Henry had on traffic and drivers since they opened?

A: A huge impact, positively. The northwest corridor has proved to reduce rush-hour traffic by about an hour. In addition to that, we’re seeing positive impact to the general purpose lanes, up by about 10 mph or more during the rush-hour periods. We’re seeing very positive impacts for (express lane) users. People are telling us on social media they’re saving 30 to 45 minutes of commute time in the morning and afternoon each. People are saying this is a game changer.

For more information on the project, including a video virtual rendering, visit www.dot.ga.gov/DS/GEL/SR400.

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(1) comment

kayla engle-lewis

the I-75 Northwest Corridor used reversible lanes that could easily be used for the 400 expansion. With reversible lanes, there would be a small expansion that would not impact homes, trees, and the lanes could fit under the Northridge Rd. bridge. GDOT discounts reversible lanes because they say it will not be enough for growth in next 20-30 years-what type of growth is the state going to allow? Presumably, all of North Georgia is up for sale... GDOT built the Northridge Rd. bridge a few years ago with a long period of construction and removal of trees behind home with no sound barriers and now those same neighborhoods who back up to that bridge are being punished by proposing to build massive flyover lanes behind their homes because they don't want to rebuild a new bridge. The neighborhoods off Northridge Rd. will not be able to access the proposed toll lanes or the proposed "fast busses" to the MARTA station on 400. The state of GA should support homeowners who invest in living and in Georgia communities-and decision making should not just be about cutting costs and attracting new development.

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