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More drivers cause traffic congestion on dense I-985
New exit plans could lead to future backups on busy Hall artery
Interstate 985 in Hall County has had its traffic counts nearly double in the past 20 years, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation. A new Exit 14 interchange between Flowery Branch and Oakwood is planned with construction beginning possibly in 2017.

Public hearing

What: Georgia Department of Transportation meeting about the planned new interchange off Interstate 985

When: 5-8 p.m. March 8

Where: Martin Technology Academy of Math and Science, 4216 Martin Road, Flowery Branch

Some 30 years ago, Fred Moses couldn’t wait to escape Atlanta traffic to travel to his Hall County farm.

“When I’d get off I-85 and hit I-985, I might not see a car until I’d get to Gainesville,” he said.

That has certainly changed in the years since Moses set up his tire store, Fred’s Treads, off Mundy Mill Road at Interstate 985 in Oakwood in 1989.

“This is a very, very thriving community now,” he said.

The Hall County area’s growth has turned I-985 into a bustling roadway over the years, particularly in South Hall, where traffic counts have nearly doubled in the past 20 years.

An average of 61,000 vehicles per day traveled on I-985 south of Wade Orr Road in 2014 — the latest available data — compared to 53,710 in 2004 and 33,600 in 1994, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Farther north, just past Oakwood’s Exit 17, the traffic numbers drop off a bit, but the numbers are still high: 54,400 vehicles per day, compared to 51,850 in 2004 and 34,100 in 1994.

Traffic backups are common and don’t have to be triggered by much, such as a fender-bender pushed off to the shoulder.

And they can be exasperating. On Feb. 12, vehicles were backed up nearly 3 miles in the north lanes of I-985 between exits 12 and 17 as the DOT replaced message boards.

Traffic especially can get clogged between Friendship Road/Ga. 347 and Gwinnett County and points south, such as Buford Drive/Ga. 20, which leads to the Mall of Georgia. I-985 eventually funnels into Interstate 85, leading to Atlanta.

Moses recalled last year a fatal wreck at the I-85 junction that backed up traffic to Ga. 347.

“What a mess,” he said.

In December, a tanker truck wreck at Plainview Road in Oakwood initially shut down southbound and northbound lanes between Spout Springs Road in Flowery Branch and Exit 17, a 5-mile stretch. Traffic was rerouted onto Thurmon Tanner Parkway and Ga. 13 and Hog Mountain Road.

With growth not slowing, motorists should only expect traffic to increase, with no widening on the horizon.

Long-range road plans, which are updated every four years, mention widening I-985 to six lanes from the Gwinnett County line to Exit 24 as an “aspiration,” which means the project — estimated at $506 million — isn’t on the radar.

One major project that will affect I-985 is set for a March 8 public hearing. The DOT plans to present maps and give information about a new Exit 14 interchange between Flowery Branch and Oakwood.

Construction could start next year on the $26 million project, which calls for a four-lane road connecting Martin Road at Atlanta Highway/Ga. 13 east of I-985 to H.F. Reed Industrial Parkway at Thurmon Tanner Parkway west of I-985. The new road also will feature bike lanes and a sidewalk.

“This project is intended to provide direct access to I-985 for the traffic generated by the existing and future developments along (Ga. 13), Thurmon Tanner Parkway and McEver Road,” DOT spokesman Mohamed Arafa said.

“The new interchange will also provide several benefits, such as optimized traffic operations, enhanced emergency response and windows of opportunity for economic development in the area,” he said.

However, the “purpose of an interchange is not to relieve congestion on a highway but to provide access to and from an area,” said Sam I. Baker, senior transportation planner for the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The new interchange “may cause traffic to slow down a bit due to exiting and entering traffic, traffic volume will be generated mostly from the population and employment growth in the region,” Baker said.

H.F. Reed leads to a growing industrial area, while Martin Road travels past homes and subdivisions to another major traffic artery, Winder Highway/Ga. 53, which leads to Interstate 85.

Elsewhere in Hall, traffic is being rerouted at the I-985 interchange at Friendship Road as workers finish widening Ga. 347 between the interstate and Old Winder Highway/Ga. 211 in Braselton — a project set for a June completion.

The interstate’s last major project took place several years ago around Moses’ business, with an overhaul of Exit 16 and a new interchange, Exit 17, at Atlanta Highway.

The result has been more people and more cars — the opposite of what Moses experienced more than 25 years ago, when, at times, “it was like a ghost town.”

“This area right here where I’m at, I have seen many so many changes and so many different people coming in and moving here,” he said.

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