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Freight study has been called off
Plan halted because Hall is not going to match federal funding, manager says
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An effort to produce a regional "freight profile" for the Gainesville-Hall area has been parked because of a lack of money.

The Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization had planned to do the study next fiscal year, which starts July 1, using $135,952 in federal transportation dollars.

"To access these funds, Hall County, as the host agency of the MPO, is required to provide a 20 percent match," said Srikanth Yamala, the agency's transportation planning manager.

"Given the (county's) budget constraints, we are not requesting the match amount at this time."

Based on declining tax digest values and increases in retirement and health care costs, the overall county budget already has a projected $8.8 million gap for fiscal 2012, officials have said.

The county's fiscal 2011 budget is $90.4 million.

The freight study, if it's ever done, would involve building a (geographic information system) freight database by collecting all publicly available data and "economically feasible private data," Yamala said.

It "would determine characteristics of the existing roadway network, including physical, operational ... and market characteristics, of the regional freight movement system," he added.

The study also would identify key freight, goods and services corridors and networks in the region.

The MPO had planned to team up with officials in "the local business and freight community," with the plan to tie into a statewide freight and logistics study the Georgia Department of Transportation is conducting, Yamala said.

He described freight as any goods or products being shipped, "generally for commercial gain, via ship, aircraft, train, van or truck."

The study is especially important for the Gainesville-Hall area, Yamala said.

"Being the economic hub of North Georgia, it is important ... to provide efficient freight access to current and future business locations to promote economic development," he said.

"Also, the level of infrastructure offered to the freight traffic has significant bearing on the overall costs of doing business in a metropolitan area like ours."

Tim Evans, the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce's vice president for economic development, said "logistics and transportation impact business and our quality of life."

"The ability to transport freight is important to the 240 manufacturers and processors in Gainesville-Hall County," he said.

Highways such as Interstate 985, U.S. 129 and Ga. 369 "cross multiple counties to reach major interstate arteries, so improving freight routes is something that needs regional thinking to help prioritize the allocation of scarce resources," Evans said.

The MPO is looking at working with Hall Area Transit on a commuter service study in the coming year, targeted specifically for commuters heading south on I-985 toward the Atlanta area, Yamala said.

The agency is looking at using $51,194 in federal transit planning dollars on the effort. The DOT will provide 10 percent of the required 20 percent match, with Hall County providing the remaining 10 percent through in-kind services.

The study "would involve conducting extensive surveys at Exit 17 and Exit 4 (Park and Ride lots) on I-985 to gauge the current ridership from the Gainesville-Hall area," Yamala said.

Also, "the study would develop a financial plan for necessary capital investments and ongoing transit operations for commuter service," he added. "The study would consider all potential operators, including the private sector."

Phillippa Lewis Moss, who, as director of the Gainesville-Hall Community Service Center, oversees Hall Area Transit, couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.

The issue isn't a new one, however.

Hall County has mulled eventually starting an express route service that would connect to Gwinnett Transit at the I-985 exit in Buford, Moss has said.

"That conversation has been delayed, particularly with the onset of the recession," she said in a January interview.

"At this point, we are trying to make sure we have enough local funds to support our current transit system. We're not in a position to think about expansion at this time."