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DOT approves money for US 129
Board OKs $28.5M to widen Ga. 20
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The Hall County area got a boost in transportation dollars Thursday.

The State Transportation Board voted to spend some $40 million on road projects, as part of a statewide $400 million initiative.

The Georgia Department of Transportation will have nearly $22 million to buy right of way for the widening of U.S. 129 from Gillsville Highway in East Hall to the Pendergrass Bypass in Jackson County.

"That is good news. It speaks volumes on the importance of this particular corridor connecting two interstates, helping truck traffic," said Srikanth Yamala, transportation planning manager for the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization.

However, the money is only part of the projected amount needed for right-of-way costs on the 6.7-mile stretch.

The total effort is expected to cost $35 million.

"We need to continue working with (the state Department of Transportation) in exploring additional funding opportunities," Yamala said.

The Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization's Policy Committee has voted to give the project high priority if funding should become available.

The DOT board also approved nearly $17.8 million toward construction of a 1.76-mile segment of a bypass around Cleveland.

The four-lane segment, phase one of the project, would run from U.S. 129 at Hope Drive, or across from Walmart, around the west side of Cleveland to Ga. 115.

As with the U.S. 129 project, the DOT doesn't have all the needed money in hand. Phase one is expected to cost $22.3 million, said Teri Pope, spokeswoman for the DOT's District 1, which includes Hall and White counties.

"But we aren't ready to begin construction yet," she added. "We hope to be able to find the balance of funds before right of way is finished, so it won't delay the construction."

The planned route has the bypass continuing north in an arc back over to U.S. 29/Ga. 11 north of Cleveland and then along Hulsey Road to end at Ga. 75.

Area officials have long supported the new road, as U.S. 129 frequently backs up, particularly during rush hour and leaf-watching weekends in the fall.

"Not to sound trite, but we would like the funding from whatever source they choose to bring it from," said White County Manager Carol Jackson in a July interview. "We just want the bypass."

Thursday's vote was intended as a measure to jump-start Georgia's struggling transportation construction industry.
"This is win-win," Board Chairman Rudy Bowen of Gwinnett County said. "We're saving and creating jobs for hard-working Georgians while at the same time making important improvements to our transportation system."

Board member Steve Gooch, who lives in Dahlonega and whose district includes Hall County, couldn't be reached for comment Thursday evening.

The board targeted 33 projects, with $152 million for new projects, $132 million for maintenance work and $117 million for right-of-way acquisition. The board was considering 270 projects estimated to cost more than $650 million that are ready to go out to bid but lack funding.

The $400 million will come from the DOT's fund balance, or its coffer of state motor fuel tax revenues.

"It is the money we use to provide matching funds for the federal dollars we get for projects and also the money we use for salaries and the department's administrative expenses," DOT spokesman David Spear has said. "... We have been very conservative and cautious in managing that money in the past couple of years."

The transportation board also approved spending $28.5 million for right of way on another major project that affects area residents - the widening of Ga. 20 in Gwinnett and Forsyth counties.

"Looking at the northern metro area, we desperately need east-west connectivity, and through the authorization of this money today, we were able to fast-track the right-of-way acquisition on the two-lane section of (Ga.) 20 from Buford to Cumming," Bowen said. "Our goal is to begin construction on this east-west artery within the next two to three years."

Also, on Thursday, the board honored Gooch with a resolution of gratitude. He leaves the board to join the General Assembly, with his swearing-in as a state senator taking place in January.