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Population may not grow as fast, new estimates show
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Hall County’s population might double by 2040, not triple, as is forecast in Hall’s current long-term transportation plan.

Pond & Co., a Norcross consultant hired to help develop the plan, projects that Hall’s population will rise to 372,000 by 2040, not the 561,812 estimated in the 2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan released in 2011.

The updated numbers are important because “we need to make our recommendations and our plans for our transportation network based on the most accurate data possible that we can,” said Brian Bolick, Pond vice president.

“We don’t want to plan for a tripling of the population if it’s going to be more of a doubling.”

The numbers shown in Pond’s study and the current plan show that Hall’s population dropped to 178,000 from 184,824 in 2008.

Sam I. Baker, senior transportation planner for the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the population drop was a casualty of the Great Recession, which lasted 2007-09.

The global financial crisis also “resulted in the slower growth projections,” he said.

However, the current projections are still higher than projections made by Regional Economic Models Inc., a Massachusetts economic forecaster and policy-analysis provider.

“The reason for the difference is, unlike REMI, we made an assumption in our projection that sometime down the road, the adverse effect of the recent recession will go away and the growth rate will come back to normal,” Baker said.

Hall County is required to develop a long-term plan because it is part of an air quality nonattainment area. Work began earlier this year and, so far, has involved a couple of public input meetings. The plan is to complete the update by August 2015.

The current document breaks down projects in three time frames, or tiers, with each one featuring a list of projects.

Citing the 561,812 population estimate, the report says that “this tremendous growth will have direct impacts to the multimodal transportation system.”

In that way, the lower projection could mean a softer impact. Basically, fewer people means less traffic and less need for bigger roadways.

“The lower projections are, however, more reasonable in light of more recent data and trends,” Baker said. “Hall County is still projected to grow, but it may be not as much as had been projected before the recession.”

Srikanth Yamala, the MPO’s director, said the lower projections “allow us to take a moment to address the ongoing transportation needs and to plan for additional growth beyond 2040.”

He did note that because “several roadway projects are still in the planning stages since the last transportation plan, the region would not see any relief when it comes to limited transportation dollars.”

The widening of Spout Springs Road in South Hall is a prime example of a much-needed project without identified funding, with the bulk of that from the federal government.

One recurring theme between the current plan and the update is uncertainty over federal funding.

The 2011 plan held out that “a new surface transportation bill may be approved by Congress in 2012.” Congress ended up passing a bill that authorized funding for a period ending this Sept. 30.

In the past few months, Congress has looked at ways to pour money into the Highway Trust Fund, which provides the federal portion of money for road projects. Earlier this month, a House bill that allocated $10.8 billion to keep highway and transit programs going through the end of May 2015 was sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Also, in addition to revenue concerns, officials also have more territory to cover in Hall’s plan update.

As a result of 2010 census numbers, the MPO’s boundaries have grown to include a part of West Jackson County, particularly the Braselton area, which includes a stretch of Interstate 85.

Also, the MPO will need to consider an updated bicycle and pedestrian plan and a long-term Gainesville transportation plan completed over the past year.

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