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Costs mount for fixing substandard roads
Wills Street in Gainesville has a massive pothole at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The short road also has another pothole near the High Street end and many patches in between.

New roadways often get the most public attention, but keeping the pavement that’s now in place safe for motorists is another huge, expensive battle for governments — one they can hardly ignore.

Officials say the costs to bring Gainesville and Hall County roads up to acceptable standards is about $55 million combined, or about the same amount for a major project, such as Spout Springs Road widening in South Hall.

The issue has come up lately as governments talk about the paving programs and the future of a long-held revenue source, the 1-percent special purpose local option sales tax.

And nationally, it has been a hot topic, as the U.S. government weighs how to fund transportation through the financially struggling Highway Trust Fund against a crumbling infrastructure system. Congress likely will take up the debate again early in 2015 as it seeks a long-term spending bill.

“Being able to get to the point where our target is ... to resurface (roads deemed substandard), it’s unlikely at the funding levels we have now,” said Jody Woodall, road projects engineer for Hall County.

“It’s always going to be an uphill battle.”

And then there’s always political implications to roads upkeep.

“It would be nice to say, ‘Let’s just do the worst first,’” Woodall said, “but we have four different (Hall Board of Commissioners) districts. If we did worst first, we might be in one district for the next three years and the other areas aren’t seeing any attention.”

Still, some roads need serious help and soon, residents and officials all say.

The county has been planning for some time a $2.7 million rebuilding of McEver Road from Flat Creek Road in Oakwood to Ga. 347/Lanier Islands Parkway in Buford.

The road serves as a main artery between Oakwood and Flowery Branch in West Hall, running by schools, homes, churches and businesses. Potholes aren’t so much the issue as long stretches of pavement cracking.

Originally, Hall had hoped to get the project underway this summer and completed by Nov. 30.

But as officials dug into the details more, the work looked bigger than anticipated.

“We’re looking at different options there, maybe try to scale back that project,” Woodall said.

“Another thing is looking at temporary closures for traffic control, so they can work on a section, get it done, then move to another section.”

But something needs to be done, he added.

“The road is definitely in a condition where it needs attention.”

Gainesville officials are concerned particularly about Wills Street, a short road off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and near Ga. 60/Queen City Parkway.

“Wills Street is awful,” Mayor Danny Dunagan said during a recent public works presentation to Gainesville City Council.

Public Works Director David Dockery acknowledged as much, saying he’s heard also from residents about the street, which has widespread cracking and shows signs of previous patching efforts.

“Wills Street requires more than just resurfacing,” said Assistant Director Chris Rotalsky. “It’s in poor shape, it’s concrete ... and will require a complete rebuild.

“And we don’t have any specific funding sources identified for that.”

City officials estimate fixing problem areas on city streets would run up to $30 million. The county estimates about $25 million for its roads, many of which are rural and don’t get quite the beating as their urban counterparts.

Dunagan said much of the problem “is we’ve gotten behind because of the economy ... and if (fixing roads costs) $20 million or $30 million today, we’re never going to get caught up at $1 million per year.”

“That’s why SPLOST is so important,” City Manager Kip Padgett said.

SPLOST has been a major source for major road work, including the McEver “road reclamation” project. Another pot of money has been the Georgia Department of Transportation’s Local Maintenance & Improvement Grant program.

The current SPLOST program expires next year. Area government officials are talking about putting on the ballot a five-year extension that might yield about $158 million.

Much of that is likely to go for road projects and improvements. Some projects being crafted for the Gainesville-Hall long-range transportation plan, which is set for an August completion, also will compete for that money.

“It’s probably 50/50 between maintenance, resurfacing, paving the gravel roads and culverts versus new construction, whether it’s in design or right of way (acquisition),” Woodall said.

Some city officials have said they are preparing for life without the extra revenue.

During an interview with several Hall County engineers about whether the lack of such funding has been discussed, Ken Rearden, public works and utilities director, said, “Not at this table. I think upstairs (administration), there is.

“And there’ll be some discussions with (tax) rates, I’m sure.”

“You can’t stop resurfacing, you just can’t,” County Engineer Kevin McInturff said. “Roads would turn into gravel if we didn’t do what we have to do.”

In the meantime, the county runs crews daily to fix potholes, responding as residents call them in.

“While it’s a reactive action, it does help prolong the life of a road,” Woodall said.

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