Concern over the safety of Ga. 365, the four-laner from Gainesville to the South Carolina line via Toccoa, can be traced well back into the 1970s before it was even built.
Accidents on the section mostly between Gainesville and Lula in recent months recollected a controversy over the road design.
Some background: The road might never have been built had Interstate 85 followed its original route, which would have swung it closer to Gainesville, Cornelia and Toccoa. But the state moved the route away from that corridor, making it less accessible to those population centers.
When Carl Sanders was campaigning for governor, he promised a four-lane connector from I-85 to Gainesville, which we now know as I-985. It was built to interstate standards, and you can get on and off it only at what the highway folk call grade-separated entrance and exit ramps.
With 1-985 coming to Gainesville in 1969, it was inevitable that a four-lane would eventually extend to the Cornelia-Toccoa area. I-985 ended at Rabbittown in east Hall County, where you’d have to take the curvy, hilly, heavily traveled two-lane U.S. 23, which we now call Old Cornelia Highway, and which has few opportunities to pass pokey pickup trucks or bulky tractor-trailer rigs.
While there had been hints of the extension of a four-lane beyond Gainesville, it was the spring of 1973 before serious discussion began. The Lula-to-Cornelia section would be built first. Troy Simpson of Cornelia was the district highway board member at the time.
Because the entire route would replace U.S. 23, the two-laner from Gainesville to Toccoa, federal funds would be involved. Construction was to start in 1975 with completion expected by 1977. But Congress sat on the money, and it would be May 1979 before work began.
While originally the new four-lane was supposed to be built to limited-access, interstate standards, state officials in 1973 changed the design to “rural freeway with full controlled access.” That meant while there would be grade separations at some intersections on the Lula-Cornelia section, others would be at grade. The state said it didn’t have enough federal money to build the road to interstate standards. Officials also told local leaders they could complete the road faster if they didn’t have to build bridges over the four-lane.
As the Lula-Cornelia section began construction, residents and some government officials worried about how the Gainesville-Lula segment would be built. Habersham and Hall County commissioners met in 1978 to express their concerns, specifically citing the dangers inherent in at-grade intersections and the fact that commercial development could pop up anywhere along the route.
The Lula-Cornelia part of Ga. 365 has some overpasses, but the Gainesville-to-Habersham segment has none. You can get on it or off it anywhere a road crosses, all at grade level.
Jerry Nix, Hall County commissioner at the time, remembers commissioners had great concerns about the absence of overpasses on the Hall County part. He recalls Georgia transportation Commissioner Tom Moreland coming to Gainesville and warning that open access on the four-lane would result in a lot of traffic fatalities.
However, property owners and residents along the route didn’t want their land isolated without reasonable access, Nix said, and the county went along with it. The state made the final decision on the road’s design.
The Times editorialized back in 1978: “The time to institute ... controls is now, before the road is completed and opened to traffic. Delay can only encourage the kind of helter-skelter development that has grown up alongside Atlanta Highway and Cleveland Road in Gainesville.”
The intersection with Howard Road, where fatal accidents have occurred, is within Gainesville city limits. Other land is in the county’s Gateway Corridor Overlay, but inside that are tracts zoned agricultural-residential, some heavy industrial and planned residential-commercial.
Ironically, here’s what one state highway official said about the construction of Ga. 365 way back in 1973: “This route will relieve the crowded and geometrically substandard U.S. 23 route which carries the majority of the 50,000 tourists which visit Hall and Habersham counties each year, as well as the daily traffic volumes. Since U.S. 23 has had a significant number of accidents and fatalities per vehicle mile, this proposal is needed, and it will certainly increase the efficiency of the transportation system in this region.”
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.