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Planners give U.S. 129 widening top priority
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An area planning group voted Tuesday to make widening a 6.72-mile portion of U.S. 129 between interstates 985 and 85 a top priority if funding becomes available.

The Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization's policy committee accepted a residents advisory group's recommendation on the matter in casting its vote.

U.S. 129, or Athens Highway, now is four lanes between I-985 and Gillsville Highway but narrows to two lanes after that point to the Pendergrass Bypass in Jackson County. The major artery then stretches for several more miles as a four-lane road before connecting with I-85.

"That's the only major corridor connecting (the two interstates) ... for truck traffic and everything," said Srikanth Yamala, transportation planning manager for the planning organization.

The project is part of the group's long-range plans, "but there is no funding, either for construction or even right of way," he added.

Oakwood Mayor Lamar Scroggs, who chairs the policy committee, pushed for approval of the recommendation.

"I do know that the commercial and business sector traffic on (the road) supports the region, and (the project) would be very beneficial," he said.

"If you're out there in a truck and you realize something has happened on I-85 and you have to jump off on I-985, there needs to be more access back to I-85," Scroggs said.

Teri Pope, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation's District 1 office in Gainesville, said the 6.72-mile section is "the only two-lane section between Gainesville and Athens."

"We agree, (it) needs to be a priority," she said. "Our problem is funding."

The project would require 166 parcels of right of way at an estimated cost of $36.8 million. Acquisition would take at least 30 months to complete, Pope said.

Construction is estimated at $41.6 million and design costs could hit $2.6 million, she added.

"This is a major connector not just between (the) interstates ... but also the commerce and educational hubs of Gainesville and Athens," Pope said.

Funding has been issue through the collapsed economy with the cash-strapped DOT. Despite Hall County's many road needs, estimated to be about $160 million, the department has only one active construction project under way - the final segment of the Thurmon Tanner Parkway in Oakwood.

The DOT is buying up right of way along Friendship Road between I-985 and Ga. 211/Old Winder Highway and hopes to begin construction on a widening project in 2012, said DOT preconstruction engineer Robert Mahoney at the meeting.

In other business, the group heard a presentation concerning ongoing work involving development of a 2040 transportation plan, which must be completed by August 2011.

Oakwood officials said they believed the new plan must address commuter rail, especially given population projections showing the county growing to 561,812 by 2040.

"The University of Georgia is fine, but we don't play football 12 months a year ... and Chattanooga is on the other side of the state," Scroggs said, referring to proposed rail lines in the state.