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The Road Ahead: Forsyth bears most of region’s road needs, sales tax projects

POSTED: June 19, 2012 11:48 p.m.

Forsyth County could be the poster child for road improvements in the Georgia Mountains region.

Facing so many transportation needs in every part of the county, the challenge early on for government officials was trying to decide which of its many projects would wind up on the 13-county region’s projects list for the July 31 transportation sales tax vote.

The list was pared to 21 projects, with some $293 million in funding coming from the 1 percent sales tax over 10 years, if approved. Only Hall County, with a slightly higher population in the 2010 census, has more project funding at nearly $300 million.

“A lot of the road (projects) are in the southern part of the county, because that’s the largest sector of our population and where they have traffic backups during the week,” said Cumming Mayor Ford Gravitt, who served on the 26-member Georgia Mountains roundtable that approved the final projects list.

Forsyth’s biggest project involves adding a single occupancy vehicle lane in each direction on Ga. 400 from McFarland Parkway to Ga. 20, work that is estimated to cost $72.9 million.

The sales tax would pay for about $40 million of the project, with the remaining $32.9 million expected from federal and state gas tax money.

If approved, sales tax collection would begin Jan. 1, with projects built in one of three time frames: 2013-15, 2016-19 and 2020.

The widening of Ga. 400 — a key North Georgia corridor extending from Lumpkin County to Interstate 85 in Buckhead — would take place between 2013 and 2015.

“There is nothing more important than the widening of Ga. 400,” said James McCoy, president and CEO of the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, in an interview with The Times during a May 21 visit to Forsyth. “Just this morning, traffic was backed up well into Dawson County.”

That type of traffic “has a direct impact on our ability to do business in this community, and it’s a huge quality of life issue,” he added.

Overall, McCoy is pleased with Forsyth’s proposed projects, a mingling of road widenings, intersection improvements, sidewalk installations and public transit expansion.

“It captures a nice cross-section and it’s very reflective of the needs and some of the highest priorities in terms of congestion and economic impact,” he said.

In a walking tour, Gravitt pointed out areas of improvement around downtown Cumming, Forsyth’s county seat and lone municipality.

“This is where everybody comes to do business,” said Gravitt, who, as a Cumming native and longtime mayor, has watched the once-rural area transform into a bustling Atlanta suburb.

“It’s a little different than it would be if several cities were strewn throughout (the county),” he added. “The major traffic comes through and we have a lot of interstate traffic because of Tyson’s (downtown) processing facility, which employs 1,500 and is the biggest chicken processing plant in the South.

“There’s a lot going on here.”

City Produce, which lies off Ga. 9 at East Maple Street in Cumming, catches a fair amount of daily traffic.

“This is a real congested area,” said Curtis Kelley, who helps run the vegetable and fruit business. “I probably saw four or five accidents last year and there’s a one-way street here — it’s just a box and it’s getting busier and busier.”

He said he believes an additional 1 percent sales tax is worth it to make road improvements.

“They’re going to have to do something,” Kelley said.

David Sexton’s business, Tents Over Georgia, overlooks Ga. 400 from its perch off Browns Bridge Road in North Forsyth.

He believes proposed improvements at Ga. 400 and Browns Bridge would help ease congestion at the intersection.

“In the morning, traffic going east on Ga. 369 is backed up all the way to the next red light,” he said. “The light changes and it doesn’t let but about six or eight cars go through (the intersection).”

That happens “because Ga. 400 is so crowded going south, and they have to keep (Ga. 400) moving,” Sexton said.

As a result of the logjam, Sexton has found another way to work, but “I have to go 2-3 miles out of the way to get here.”

The proposed sales tax doesn’t have universal support in Forsyth County.

Mary Kay Teefey, who handles communication for the Forsyth County Tea Party, said she believes the sales tax would “add another layer of bureaucracy” in Atlanta.

Plus, “I know the chambers of commerce are all for this, but it’s because businesses are in their back pockets,” she said.

Teefey also said she expects that with the continuing flow of people to Forsyth County, the sales tax projects would do little to help congestion.

Hal Schneider, chairman of the Forsyth County Tea Party, opposes the tax on several grounds, including that Forsyth will be a “donor county” in the region.

“They will contribute far more in revenues than they will receive in projects,” Schneider said.

A Georgia Mountains Regional Commission analysis backs that up, showing that Forsyth will contribute $386.8 million to the region and will receive $347.7 million in money for projects, a $39 million difference.

Also, Schneider said, “the claim that it will improve traffic is patently false.”

Even supporters acknowledge that Forsyth’s list will only make a dent in road improvement needs.

“I don’t think anyone, at least in our region, has said that this is the answer for transportation needs forever and ever,” McCoy said. “What this does is it helps us get to a greater goal, which is reducing congestion.”

One of Forsyth’s biggest needs is addressing traffic on Ga. 20, which also travels through neighboring Gwinnett and Cherokee counties.

Because of its high cost, a $185 million project that called for the widening of Ga. 20 from Ga. 371 to Ga. 400 was dropped as part of early talks with other regional leaders.

“It’s a much-needed project and ... it’s going to have to be something that has to go through some of the other regions to get to the Georgia Mountains region,” he said. “And that’ll have to be worked out with the (Georgia Department of Transportation).”


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