Sandy Springs resident Tania Marino is among the individuals opposing the Georgia Department of Transportation’s Interstate 285 Top End Express Lanes project.

Under the plan, GDOT will build one express lane on each side of 285 from Paces Ferry Road in Cobb County northeast to I-75 and then two lanes on each side east from 75 to I-85 before dropping to one lane on each side southeast from 85 to Henderson Road in DeKalb County. It also includes express lanes north on Georgia 400 from 285 to the North Springs MARTA station.

“I think it’s horrible,” she said. “I’m terrified of what it’s going to do to quality of life of just living somewhere that feels like a neighborhood. I’m also very concerned about the carbon monoxide plume that will be a near constant with having cars being constantly run (on 285) and so many of them.

“And there are so many schools that are so close to the highway: Riverwood High, Heards Ferry Elementary, plus lots of others. We are districted for High Point (Elementary), which is where we intend to stay, but eventually that leads up to Riverwood High. I don’t want to live in the middle of (a new) Spaghetti Junction.”

Marino is one of about 100 residents who attended GDOT’s Community Conversation meeting May 22 at the Hilton Atlanta Perimeter Suites hotel in Sandy Springs. It was one of seven such meetings in cities along the project route between May 14 and 23.

Residents’ opinions

Of the three residents interviewed by the Neighbor at the meeting, two said they’re against it and one said he’s for it, and none live in homes that could be impacted by the plan. Sandy Springs resident John Robinson said he’s in favor of the project but declined to comment further.

Fellow Sandy Springs resident Darrell Knight said he opposes the project because it doesn’t properly address the region’s mass transit needs, adding a MARTA rail line would be a better option. GDOT leaders and elected officials have said the express lanes are a much less costly alternative to heavy rail.

“Well, I suppose if I lived there (near 285), I’d probably be (in favor of it),” Knight said of the project. “I don’t really drive (on 285) much anymore. I try to avoid it. I can see because for whatever reason the Braves decided to stick a baseball stadium in a transportation location no one can get to (via mass transit), I can see the value of that.

“I would think if they’re able to encourage MARTA or agree with Cobb County, if they could get a MARTA station there or a MARTA train running from Dunwoody or Sandy Springs running to (near SunTrust Park), that would be a lot more efficient and more convenient for everybody because you’re building roads for millions of dollars and extending all sorts of conveniences for a few hours of the day during the week.”

GDOT’s plans

To open the meeting, GDOT Major Mobility Investment Program Manager Tim Matthews gave a 20-minute presentation on the project before he and other representatives of GDOT, MARTA and the State Road and Tollway Authority, which manages the tolls on the express lanes, were available to answer questions about it. The express lanes will include not only regular vehicles but also bus rapid transit ones.

Matthews said GDOT had to rescind the notice of intent on the Revive 285 project, a similar express lanes plan, before moving forward on the 285 express lanes project. He said in 2013 the Atlanta Regional Commission and GDOT started looking at managed lanes/express lanes as the way to ease congestion in metro Atlanta.

Two years later the Georgia General Assembly approved the Transportation Funding Act to provide $1 billion in funding for projects such as this one.

Matthews said the express lanes previously installed, such as the ones along I-75 in Cobb and Cherokee counties, have allowed drivers using them to save 20 to 30 minutes on some commutes and have even increased speeds on the main highways in those areas.

In an interview after his presentation, Matthews said the main purpose of these meetings, which did not include any detailed plans for the project – those will be released at another series of meetings starting in January – was to educate the public on the plan.

“It’s a federally mandated process, except we’ve got to educate the public, inform them of how we’re making a decision, and move from (the Revive 285) project to this project,” he said, adding the option to not build express lanes is still on the table, though that’s unlikely. “This environmental document will start and it will start the process for this project to go through the express lanes alternative, including the no-build alternative and ultimately get to a decision on those two moving forward.”

Matthews also cleared up any confusion over the news that Brookhaven officials told residents in April they had heard about 300 homes along 285 would be impacted by the project, meaning not all of those properties will be affected.

“What we’ve done is we looked at a tax map of all the property lines that touch the 285 right-of-way along the GDOT corridor,” he said. “If you do the math, it’s around 300 and something properties that touch the right-of-way of 285. We may need none of those; we may need five feet of those; we may need a foot of those; we may need the whole thing.

“Until we do the concept drawings and layouts and present that in January, we won’t know exactly what we need. … So it’s really up in the air until we get to that point. But just looking at the number of parcels that touch the 285 right-of-way, that’s where that number came from.”

During his presentation he added, “We want to avoid impacts where we can, and then minimize them if we can’t avoid impacts.”

As a reporter waited to interview Matthews following his presentation, many of the residents speaking to him said they were hoping to see maps showing which homes would be impacted by the project and were disappointed when told that information would not come until January.

Preferring rail

Knight lives near 400 off Northridge Road but his home won’t be impacted by right-of-way acquisition for the separate 400 express lanes project north of the North Springs MARTA station. He said he’s against GDOT’s plan to build a bridge over Northridge as part of that project, hoping it will opt for putting the lanes under Northridge.

Of the 285 express lanes plan, Knight and Marino said GDOT and MARTA should coordinate better on transit project plans and come up with a better, more environmentally friendly one that includes rail. However, GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said, under Georgia law, GDOT does not have the power to build transit lines.

“So maybe it’s five hours (a day),” Knight said of the benefits the express lanes could have on rush hour traffic. “We’re going to invest in millions of dollars, blight lots of communities and force people out of their homes so certain people can get to work faster. It’s illogical to me. It doesn’t make sense. All you’re doing is chasing your tail. You’re not really solving the problem. You’re just pushing the problem down the road.”

Said Marino, “The other thing that really makes me insane or frustrated is MARTA, or a rail line, is not included in GDOT (plans). The fact that GDOT naturally and only can go for solutions that include vehicles and roads (is frustrating). I think everybody I’ve spoken to, number one, hasn’t known about this; number two, is horrified when they see the drawings; and, number three, doesn’t understand why they wouldn’t do rail lines.”

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