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Cleveland Highway project behind schedule
DOT disappointed, while contractor blames delays on rain, rain and more rain
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The first leg of the Cleveland Bypass is nearing completion as road crews prep the surface for asphalt. The four-lane road with a separating median will connect U.S. 129 to S.R. 115.

The first leg of the Cleveland Bypass is nine months behind schedule, with some grading still yet to be done and the contractor racking up daily fines, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.

The DOT “is disappointed with the lack of progress by (Tucker-based contractor) Sunbelt Structures on this project,” district spokeswoman Teri Pope said.

Work began on the $15.1 million project in August 2012, with a completion date of July 31, 2014. The date was extended to Oct. 13 because of bad weather, with a daily fine of $1,869 assessed past that date, Pope said.

Then, “last fall, the contractor set a target completion date of (April 30) to open the road,” she said.

The two-mile project calls for construction of a four-lane divided highway beginning at Hope Drive and Ga. 11/U.S. 129 and extending northwest to Ga. 115.

Grading still needs to be finished on the northern end near Ga. 115. Then crews will need to put down road base and pave the road. Roadway base has been put on about 75 percent of the driving lanes, Pope said.

A paving crew started Thursday on the southbound lanes of the bypass, she said.

Also, a connecting road near the start of the bypass, enabling motorists to turn right to head into downtown Cleveland, “is not half finished yet,” Pope said. “(Crews have) paved two lanes, but (they) still need to pave shoulders and install guardrail.”

When asked whether DOT will require Sunbelt to project another completion date, Pope said, “This has never happened in Northeast Georgia in my 16-plus years (with the DOT) — I don’t know what will happen next.”

The DOT “is continuing negotiations with Sunbelt and urging them in every way possible to complete the work as quickly as possible,” she said.

Fines, as set in the original contract, won’t go any higher, Pope added.

Michael Williams, Sunbelt’s president, said the project has been plagued by “rain, rain and more rain.”

“It’s very simple,” he said. “The weather has been very inclement. We had a record April amount of rainfall.”

The company “is as anxious to finish the job as the DOT is for us to finish it,” Williams said.

“We’re disappointed we’re still on the job, but we’re not disappointed in the progress we’re making, considering the weather conditions,” he said.

Work began Dec. 29 on the 2.2-mile second phase of the bypass, which will run from Ga. 115 to Ga. 11/U.S. 129 across from Hulsey Road.

The $25 million project includes construction of six bridges, one for each direction of traffic at three locations: Jess Hunt Road, Tesnatee River and Tesnatee Creek.

Like the first phase, the road will be a four-lane divided highway.

The second leg has a completion date of Oct. 10, 2017, with the work done by G.P.’s Enterprises of Auburn.

According to the White County government website, the project’s third phase is scheduled to break ground sometime in 2019.

That project will involve a road running from near Hulsey Road at U.S. 129 to near Hulsey at Ga. 75/Helen Highway.

“More information will be available once plans are finalized,” according to the site.

Together, the separate projects will form a western arc around the tourist town.

“Once completed, the Cleveland Bypass will improve mobility for locals and tourists by directing through-traffic around Cleveland, minimizing congestion into the square,” DOT district engineer Brent Cook has said.

White County officials and residents have long anticipated the overall bypass, as traffic gets congested on U.S. 129 heading into downtown Cleveland, especially at rush hour and during the busy leaf-watching season in the fall.