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Funds lacking to improve Halls busiest roads
Residents frustrated, say work is needed
A completion date has not been set for U.S. 129/Cleveland Highway widening from Limestone Parkway to south of Nopone Road.

The wreck in her front yard, turning an elaborate birdhouse into a pile of lumber, helped confirm what Stephanie Scoggins already knew: Something needs to be done with Ga. 369/Browns Bridge Road.

“I’m frustrated by the lack of road improvement in our area,” Scoggins said.

The word for Scoggins and other residents along the busy, curvy West Hall County artery is: wait.

A survey by The Times of pending road projects and Georgia Department of Transportation traffic counts shows that five of the seven busiest roads in Hall being eyed for improvements — including Ga. 369 — don’t have construction money tied down. Meanwhile, some other, less busier ones are in line sooner for roadwork.

The busiest road, with an average of 19,870 vehicles per day, is Ga. 347/Lanier Islands Parkway between McEver Road and Interstate 985, and it’s the project set for the earliest completion. Work is well underway and set to be finished Nov. 30.

But following in the list of busiest roads are projects without complete funding in hand: U.S. 129/Cleveland between Limestone Parkway and south of Nopone Road; Ga. 13/Atlanta Highway from Thurmon Tanner Parkway near I-985 to Browns Bridge Road; and Spout Springs Road between Hog Mountain Road and Gwinnett County.

A February public information meeting on the U.S. 129 project drew 213 people. Many residents expressed opinions about median cuts, right-of-way acquisition or other issues, but the common theme seemed to be whether the road would even get built.

“They say (the project) is closer, but I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Jason Truelove, who lives off Little River Park Road.

At the same time, however, other projects with smaller traffic counts are getting higher priority.

The road project with the smallest traffic count is the widening of Lanier Islands Parkway from McEver Road to Lake Lanier Islands, a resort on state-owned property leased to a private company.

It has an average of 2,730 vehicles per day, as recorded near Whidby Road, compared to 16,410 vehicles per day on U.S. 129 north of Briarwood Drive. The DOT numbers are based on 2012 counts, with 2013 counts available by mid-2014, district spokeswoman Teri Pope said.

Srikanth Yamala, planning director for Hall County government, said the work being considered on that stretch of Ga. 347 “is not your traditional widening project with four lanes.”

“In fact, it’s almost as an operational improvement project, where a dedicated center turn lane is being added.”
The $8.8 million project, which features a roundabout at New Bethany and Big Creek roads, is projected to go out for bids in 2014-15.

“That appears to be a lot (of money), but you need $80 million to complete the U.S. 129 (widening) going north,” Yamala said.

And with the rest of Ga. 347 being widened, in two other projects between McEver Road and Ga. 211/Old Winder Highway, “it only makes sense” to complete the widening of the road, he added.

“If we did not do that, it would end up being the same situation we have on Athens Highway,” Yamala said.

Athens Highway/U.S. 129 South is four lanes between Gainesville and Athens except for a stretch between Ga. 323/Gillsville Highway and the Pendergrass Bypass, resulting in a traffic bottleneck at either end of the curvy two-lane stretch.

That widening could end up being Hall’s next major project.

The DOT is busily buying right of way along the segment, where a traffic counter near Bob Bryant Road shows annual average daily traffic of 12,080.

Still, Browns Bridge Road shows 14,330 vehicles near Waldrip Road and 12,120 near Pine Forest Road, and “the right of way acquisition and construction phases are both in long range, with no funds identified,” Pope said.

An open house on the project was held in 2007. Scoggins, a lifelong resident off Browns Bridge Road, recalled feeling hopeful after the meeting.

But now, not so much.

“I know there’s a lot of decisions that go into (deciding project priorities), but sometimes, you feel like you’ve been abandoned,” she said.

The project was even pulled from a list Hall County drew up as its contribution to a regional transportation sales tax referendum that failed in July 2012. Replacing it was the widening of Ga. 211 between Ga. 53/Winder Highway and the eastern end of Ga. 347.

Yamala recalled that move.

“Forsyth County was not on board with their portion (of the Browns Bridge road widening), and one of the requirements for T-SPLOST was to include projects with regional connectivity,” he said.

Yamala went on to say that “traffic counts is only one of the factors in prioritizing roadway widening projects.”

Other factors include project readiness, overall cost, connectivity to existing roadway widening projects, congestion and economic development potential.

Yamala said the cost of the Ga. 211 widening was “significantly lower” than the Browns Bridge project and would have connected the Ga. 347 and Spout Springs Road widening projects also on the projects list for the sales tax.

Unlike what many folks might think, the DOT doesn’t prioritize projects in urbanized areas such as Hall.

That falls to local planners, engineers and elected officials that make up metropolitan planning organizations — the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization, in Hall County’s case. Yamala directs the transportation planning group.

The DOT or local governments “bring up project ideas that get (studied) through preconstruction,” Pope said. “As projects are developed, MPO committees and public meetings set priorities for which projects happen sooner based on funding levels.

“These are usually the widening projects that are built for (traffic) capacity and for safety. Especially in Northeast Georgia, straightening out curves, flattening hills and raising valleys vastly improve safety.”

The MPO has two major planning documents, one for short-range projects and one for long-range projects.

The long-range plan — setting priorities through 2040 — is about to go through an update, with completion set by August 2015.

The work ahead could get complicated as the planning region now includes part of Jackson County — mainly the Braselton area — and an formalized Gainesville transportation plan and updated bicycle/pedestrian plan.

And then there is the issue of money — or lack of it.

Federal money makes up the bulk of major road projects, and that well is going dry.

“Starting in July, we will not be authorizing any federal aid projects — or very few, if any at all,” Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Keith Golden told a Hall County audience earlier this month.

“There will be no design dollars authorized, no rights of way purchased for federal-aid projects and no construction dollars going out the door until Congress gives us some kind of certainty as to what the future holds.

Congress is debating reauthorizing the federal transportation spending law, which ends Sept. 30. Mainly, it is look at ways to put money in the Highway Trust Fund, the nation’s pool of transportation money, which “is going to become insolvent around August,” Golden said.

One of the options is raising the gas tax from 18.3 cents per gallon.

“Basically, we have more projects than dollars and (it’s an issue of) how best you (spend) those limited financial resources to make those projects happen in a timely manner,” Yamala said.

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