Induced Demand: GDOT’s Misguided I-285 Top-End Plan

Update (5/1/2019)

GDOT has announced public meetings in affected to “inform” the public about these plans. One meeting is currently scheduled for Doraville on Tuesday, May 14 from 12 – 2pm. I encourage anyone who cares about this issue to attend. If you can’t attend the Doraville meeting because of work, there are some meetings in other cities that were scheduled at better times. I created a Facebook invite that has all the information about the Doraville meeting and the dates/times of the meetings here.

Also – Integral group recently did a presentation to the ATL Transportation Board about mobility at the Assembly site. There was a little bit of information about how the toll lanes will affect that development (mostly it seems neutral to positive). I thought the most interesting piece of the presentation was the map posted above.
You can see the full presentation here.

Original Post (4/27/2019):

For several years, I’ve been hearing about the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) plan to build express toll lanes across I-285. Originally called “Revive 285,” they are now calling it the “I-285 Top-End” project. The GDOT website explains that it will add “two new elevated, barrier-separated express lanes in each direction on I-285, alongside the existing general purpose lanes.” These new lanes will be part of the Georgia Express Lanes system, and the goal is to “provide drivers more reliable trip times” – presumably by taking some traffic off the general purpose lanes of the freeway. The Reporter newspapers published an article with pretty good information about what the lanes may look like earlier this year.

An illustration of what the I-285 Top End project may look like

In Doraville and other cities affected by the new express lanes, acres upon acres of productive land will be paved over (and taken off the tax roles). It will also create more noise, traffic and pollution in our neighborhoods. Because of that, I’ve been impatiently waiting to find out more detailed information. Some news has has dripped out here and there – as far back as 2017, the AJC published an article that stated the mayors of Doraville, Brookhaven, Dunwoody & Chamblee wanted to make sure that a mass transit component was included in the final project plan – but it’s only been in the last few months that we have really started to understand the scope.

Last week, the mayor of Brookhaven held a town hall meeting where he announced that at least 300 properties along the I-285 corridor would be taken from their owners through eminent domain – including some that are in residential neighborhoods. A few days later, the Reporter Newspapers ran an article with the news that 5 acres of Assembly in Doraville had been taken by GDOT eighteen months ago – and that a massive interchange will be built in the city. This is on top of any other properties Doraville will see taken by the department of transit to make room for the new lanes.

I don’t know how wide a swath the Top End project will cut through our city, but I do have a reasonable guess about the areas that will be affected. I’ve highlighted those areas in the satellite view of 285 and the Buford Highway Corridor below:

Potential impact of the Top End 285 Project

I am going to be up front and say that I am skeptical about this entire plan. While adding additional lanes may temporarily relieve traffic congestion, adding more supply will ultimately just encourage more people to get on the road – this is a rule of economics called “induced demand” and has been documented since the 60s. The video below has a good explanation of the concept:

Doraville has already been scarred by big-idea projects like this one. The original construction of I-285 back in the 70s split the city in half, and the MARTA station that was built in the late-80s and early-90s demolished our historic downtown. We’re still recovering from these previous traumas – and now GDOT has come saying, “We are going to take more.”

I do not fault Mayor Pittman for negotiating with GDOT to minimize the impact to Doraville – and using this as an opportunity to connect some of the disparate pieces of our city. The city has limited negotiating power with an agency like GDOT, and any concessions she was able to get from them are appreciated.

That does not mean that I think this freeway extension is a good thing.

Over and over, I have asked various elected officials – in Doraville and other cities – whether this project is a done deal and if they think anything can be done to stop it. Everyone has said, “there’s nothing we can do – the managed lanes will be built whether we agree with the project or not, so we need to make the best deal possible for each of our cities. One official made the point that this project is not going to be funded by the legislature (the contractor will be paid back from revenue that comes from the tolls) – this means that GDOT is not accountable to any elected body (or to the people) – and that means (as far as GDOT is concerned) that public opinion does not matter.

At the end of the day, I want to be vocal about my opposition to this project, and encourage others who feel the same way to speak up. Maybe if enough voices come together, the governor and other state officials will ask GDOT to pause and consider whether this is really the project we need to solve our transportation problems.