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Motoring through Hall can be tricky, time-consuming
Almost everyone has their gripe with local traffic problems
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Bill Stroud of Chicopee Village talks about the heavy northbound traffic that backs up at the intersection of Atlanta Highway Memorial Park Drive because there is no left turn lane to ease the congestion. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

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Teri Pope, a Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman, talks about concerns the DOT has about driving.

Tangling with traffic

Andrew Morters has seen plenty of changes in Hall County since his family arrived in 1977.

Particularly this: More people, more cars.

“What drives me crazy when I’m trying to get somewhere in and around Gainesville? The ever-increasing amounts of stop signs and traffic lights,” he said.

“Why are we not talking seriously about putting in traffic circles instead of lights?”

Probably every Hall County motorist has a story or pet peeve — maybe a nightmare to share — about driving through Hall. The county has doubled in population since 1990 and roads have reflected the increases, from major roads to side streets.

Many millions of dollars have been poured into improvements, including traffic signals and signalization, and millions yet are targeted for upgrades.

But frustrations still persist, perhaps because fixes can’t keep up with the number of drivers, but also because of quirky intersections and roadways that demand applying the brakes and a good dose of patience.

Bill Stroud, who lives in Chicopee Village south of Gainesville, said he believes that “maybe the worst, and possibly most dangerous, intersection around the city is at the east end of Memorial Park (Drive).”

Turning left onto Memorial Park from Atlanta Highway “is horrible and has gotten worse with the opening of the new Exit 17 on I-985, bringing even more truck traffic onto Atlanta Highway.”

“Not only is (Memorial Park) a major connector street between Atlanta Highway and Browns Bridge Road, but the UPS Distribution Center and other major businesses on Centennial Drive, along with the chicken processing businesses on Memorial Park, have a major impact with all their trucks.”

Another of Stroud’s beefs might ring familiar with many Gainesville motorists.

He considers as “nightmare No. 2” the traffic on Jesse Jewell Parkway between the Queen City Parkway-John Morrow Parkway junction and Downey Boulevard near the Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

That stretch of road includes arguably the busiest intersection in Hall County — Jesse Jewell at E.E. Butler.

Stroud particularly notes the stretch of Jesse Jewell east of the Georgia Mountains Center, including intersections at Academy, Maple, Main and Bradford streets, as well as E.E. Butler.

This past spring, crews wrapped up a yearlong, $1.85 million Georgia Department of Transportation project updating traffic lights and pedestrian crossings along Ga. 369, also known as Jesse Jewell and Browns Bridge Road, between Downey and Pearl Nix Parkway.

The project involved installation of new signals on mast-arm poles and ensuring that pedestrian ramps comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at each crossing. But the major part affecting motorists was a fiber-optic system to help with traffic timing.

“We’ll be able to more efficiently keep track of our traffic,” Gainesville traffic engineer Dee Taylor said at the time. “We’ll have cameras on each of the mast arms. These are not red-light running cameras. They are simply (there) for detection of vehicles at the intersections.

“That image is processed back into the traffic signal cabinet, then into the controller ... which processes those images as vehicle calls and then the timing is adjusted.”

Lights might not change as quickly as motorists want, but that might be because of high volume at that particular time.

On the other hand, a traffic light shouldn’t be stuck on red in the dead of night and with no cars around.

If that happens, motorists “need to let us know,” Taylor said, speaking on the subject last week. “That’s the short answer. I would say (the problem) is a broken loop or something that’s ... not reading the traffic correctly.”

He said that what separates Gainesville — a Northeast Georgia business hub, drawing much daytime traffic — from other cities is Lake Lanier.

“We don’t have any sort of way of getting around Gainesville except coming through (it), and part of that is because of the lake,” he said. “It’s a double-edged sword: The (lake) is what’s bringing people in and it won’t let people get around (town).”

Gridlock isn’t just in town

Not all roads lead to downtown Gainesville, of course.

Other parts of Hall are bogged down by heavy traffic.

On the southern end, “with the expansion of the intersection at I-985 and Mundy Mill Road, and the addition of Walmart and other businesses in the area, the number of traffic lights has dramatically increased,” David Craver of Oakwood said.

“While they serve a need and keep traffic moving during the day, they are completely superfluous at night.”

Craver said he often travels Mundy Mill after 10 p.m.

“The number of times that I have to sit at a red light, at an empty intersection, is staggering,” he said.

The DOT “is still doing some cleanup things” on the $75 million Interstate 985 project, which opened up for motorists last year, Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown said.

“We know that there are probably some timing improvements that need to be made at the Walmart intersection, Atlanta Highway and probably the ramps,” he said, adding that the DOT is responsible for the lights.

Brown also cited growth in the area, including Gainesville State and Lanier Technical colleges, which have about 10,000 students between them.

Farther south, traffic backs up daily on Spout Springs Road in Flowery Branch. Rush hour at that interchange with I-985 equals a hefty wait for motorists, plus cars traveling in a “Keep Moving” lane headed toward Hog Mountain Road add to the adventure.

Traveling north on Spout Springs in the mornings, or headed toward Flowery Branch from Braselton, used to be a special headache for motorists before a recently completed series of improvements were made.

With the Braselton end of Spout Springs growing and a partially developed 1,000-acre subdivision (Sterling on the Lake) sitting on that road, traffic is only expected to increase, especially as the economy begins to improve.

Hall County now is taking initial steps to eventually widen the two-lane artery to the Gwinnett County line.

Friendship Road is another hairy ride for commuters, but more immediate relief is on the way. The DOT hopes to begin construction next year on widening the road from I-985 to Ga. 211/Old Winder Highway.

Other South Hall traffic relief next year will come in the long-awaited completion of Thurmon Tanner Parkway.

When the final stretch between Mundy Mill and Plainview roads is finished, the parkway will serve as an I-985 alternative, running between Atlanta Highway near Oakwood to Phil Niekro Boulevard in Flowery Branch.

North Hall drivers feel left out

North Hall also features some busy roads, such as Thompson Bridge Road, Cleveland Highway and Ga. 365.

Linking Thompson Bridge to Dawsonville Highway has been a hot topic for years, but the notion of linking Thompson Bridge to Ga. 365 was met with some heavy opposition last year, with concerns focused on impact to neighborhoods and Lake Lanier.

A proposed widening of Cleveland Highway has one North Hall resident, Cindy Thompson, particularly upset.

With the project not close to construction, she wishes the DOT would remove her property from its list of targeted right of way.

Still, she hopes for road improvement.

“Each morning, I travel three miles to work on Green Street,” Thompson said. “Usually, it takes me about 20 minutes to travel those three miles at 8 in the morning and 5 in the evening.

“In the morning, southbound traffic backs up at Riverbend (Baptist) Church and continues bumper to bumper all the way through Green Street. In the evening, northbound traffic backs up at the billboards on Park Hill (Drive) and continues as far as you can see.”

She added, “This congestion has been going on for years. It is never addressed. It seems as though DOT ignores this area (and that) the focus is clearly (on) South Hall.”

Thompson said she believes the DOT should “finish the widening of Cleveland Highway from Limestone to Nopone and take it a step further to include widening/reworking Park Hill Drive.”

Road projects, from start to finish, can take years, even decades, depending on the complexity.

“When you’re in a high-growth area and the building process (takes a long time), you’re going to be behind the curve,” said Teri Pope, a Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

“So trying to find a way (for) our transportation infrastructure to keep up with the needs is not happening right now ... and funding is not happening right now.”

Safety concerns come first

So, as stop and go may be the routine for most drivers as they travel around Hall, the DOT and law enforcement are hoping motorists are at least paying attention to the brake and gas pedal.

“One of the DOT’s biggest safety concerns is distracted driving,” Pope said. “If kids get sick in the back seat, that’s a very big distraction. But now you add to that cell phones, texting, getting your song off your iPod ... and people using the Internet or GPS devices.”

One of the more tragic stories lately involving traffic took place Nov. 4 on Ga. 365, which the Hall County Sheriff’s Office has identified as its deadliest stretch of road.

Jessica Collins was headed south on the road when she turned left on Mountain View Parkway, pulling in front of a car

traveling north on Ga. 365. Her 8-year-old daughter, Ariana, died in the crash.
Collins was cited in the wreck.

Still, as someone living in Lula near the four-lane highway, Collins generally worries for the safety of motorists on the road.

 “I can’t tell you the amount of wrecks I’ve seen on (Ga. 365), fatal or nonfatal,” she said. “I just feel that something needs to be done.

“The YMCA (on Howard Road) down past the Shell (gas station) headed toward Cornelia is horrible and there are only two traffic lights on the whole strip.”

Pope said the DOT doesn’t dismiss wrecks on state roads.

“Every time we have a fatality, we have an investigator who goes to the scene and inspects the scene and goes through crash reports,” she said.

The purpose of the trip is “to see if there is some way we can enhance the transportation infrastructure, to prevent a crash from happening there again.”

“There’s nothing we can do about a DUI, if that’s the cause of the crash, or a deer jumping in front of a vehicle on Ga. 365.”

More traffic signals may seem like the ready solution, but they also can cause more problems, especially on a road such as Ga. 365.

I-985 becomes Ga. 365 after Jesse Jewell Parkway, but motorists often keep driving at the same speeds, even though the speed limit is reduced and interchanges are gone.

“We know at signals on a high-volume corridor like 365, most of the crashes are going to occur at traffic signals,” Pope said. “And most of them are going to be rear-end collisions because somebody’s not paying attention and didn’t stop fast enough.”

While focusing on those lanes between the ditches is key to getting around Hall, William B. Edmonds of Gainesville said he wished people would also think about other drivers as they grip the wheel and hit the accelerator.

“The only thing with which I have difficulty is the fact that some people block intersections, choking traffic unnecessarily,” he said.

“Two of the worst places downtown (Gainesville) are trying to turn left on Green Street rather than continuing on Academy (Street), and the other is trying to turn left on Race Street from Jesse Jewell Parkway, going north or south.”

Edmonds added, “I am not advocating that we have signs at all intersections, but that all of us use courtesy and obey the law to keep intersections open and available to others.”

Otherwise, “I think it is fortunate that someone had the forethought to make four-lane entrances to the downtown area, giving far better traffic flow than existed with two lanes.”

All in all, Edmonds said, “Gainesville has been my happy home for over 40 years. There just isn’t another place I would rather live.”

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