The WSB Traffic Team and Georgia Department of Transportation officials hosted a traffic special late last month on News 95.5/AM750 WSB. Smilin’ Mark McKay, Ashley Frasca, Mark Arum, and I asked GDOT about the status of the Transform I-285/GA-400 project and what it will achieve and the timeline for its completion, a discussion we covered in this column last week. The other big piece of that roundtable was the future advent of new toll lanes on large sections of both I-285 and GA-400.
These new Express Lanes, which will run on GA-400 between I-285 and McFarland Parkway and on I-285 anywhere north of I-20, are four pieces in the 11-project Major Mobility Investment Program (MMIP). Former Georgia Governor Nathan Deal approved the plan, which aims to reduce overall congestion on Georgia roads by 5% by 2030. GDOT aims to do this by adding hundreds of lane miles to the state’s freeway system, many of which will come in the form of toll lanes in Metro Atlanta.
This plan came to fruition before the tolled, reversible I-75 and I-575 Express Lanes in Cobb, Cherokee, and Henry counties opened in the last couple of years. But their successes further justify the endeavor.
“Folks are traveling in that Express Lane system at very high speeds, compared to the general purpose lanes,” GDOT MMIP Program Manager Tim Matthews said of the lanes northwest of town. He noted on our Triple Team Traffic Special that the reversible toll lanes on I-75 and I-575 average more than 55 miles per hour. “We’re hearing via our social media pages that people are saving 15 to 30 minutes on their commute times from end to end.”
We have observed the big improvements between I-285, Acworth, and Holly Springs from both the WSB Skycopter and our 24-Hour Traffic Center. The rush hour has decreased by more than an hour from start to finish in both the mornings and afternoons, on average, GDOT said.
Matthews explained the added capacity to both freeways hasn’t just helped those who pay: “Also, trip times in the general purpose lanes are more reliable, too. We are getting higher travel speeds in the general purpose lanes as well.”
Engineers and officials had to explore what was right to to achieve the same impact on both I-285 and GA-400.
“Every section of our interstate has different challenges,” GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale said on the traffic show. “I-285 is really its own beast, when you look at the numbers.”
Dale said more than a quarter of a million people use the north side of I-285 daily. “We’re looking 20 years down the road. To make that long-term impact, you’re going to need two on each side. A reversible system will only make a dent.”
Their goal is to decrease congestion not just in the general purpose lanes and the toll lanes, but on the crowded side roads, as well.
“We’re going to have two lanes, barrier-separated in each direction, from I-75 in Cobb County all the way to I-85 in DeKalb County,” Matthews said of the I-285 lanes. This then would eventually continue all the way down the east and west sides of I-285 to I-20. “We’re going to try to build a system that, again, is aerial — similar to what you see on the Northwest Corridor project.”
Adding more than a hundred miles of lanes to I-285 is a huge undertaking, as is the complete, much-needed redesigns of both I-285/I-20 interchanges. These six projects — four for toll lanes and two for the I-20 interchanges — cannot happen simultaneously. Matthews said not only do GDOT and the state not have $11 billion in the bank to fund everything at once, but that simply would take too much manpower. All 11 MMIP projects are set to be either underway or finished by 2026.
As for the timeline on the I-285 and GA-400 toll lanes? “The 400 project is scheduled for 2021 through 2024. And the northside Express Lane project is from 2023 to 2028 for construction,” Matthews said.
So the new, free collector-distributor lanes and ramps of the Transform I-285/GA-400 project will open several years before any toll lanes do.
I-285 turns 50-years-old this year and was only two lanes in each direction then. GDOT is essentially building “1969 I-285” around the current Perimeter north of I-20. GA-400 will also see added toll lanes and hopefully a decrease in the growing trip times. Both of these projects could cross people’s properties, but only if doing so is unavoidable. Nonetheless, seeing some relief on busy and growing I-285 and GA-400 should be a welcome reality for the whole area.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.