Area residents are skeptical about progress but eager to see completion of the Appalachian Parkway — formerly known as the Cleveland Bypass.
“It’s Cleveland — that’s what you expect,” said Joe Cosner, longtime resident and downtown businessman. “Nothing happens on time here.”
But when the four-lane road, which has been in talks for decades, finally opens, “it can only make things better here,” Cosner said.
Work is picking up in at least at one section of the construction project’s first phase, as workers are raising the grade of Tesnatee Gap Valley Road about 8 feet at Ga. 115. The intersection is slated to reopen by July 28, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.
“We’re just hopeful (the contractor) finishes (the first phase) this summer as he anticipates he will,” said state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega. “I’m looking to see it done by Labor Day, before fall.”
The four-lane road is designed to carry traffic from Hope Drive and Ga. 11/U.S. 129 northwest to Ga. 115.
Completion should ease congestion on U.S. 129, which is especially logjammed on fall weekends during the leaf-watching season. It snakes through the downtown square, where motorists can turn west onto Ga. 115 and head to Dahlonega or continue north toward Helen — a couple of other popular mountain destinations.
Work began on the $15.1 million first phase in August 2012, with a completion date of July 31, 2014. The date was extended to Oct. 13 because of bad weather, with a daily fine of $1,869 assessed past that date, DOT district spokeswoman Teri Pope said in May.
Then, last fall, the contractor, Tucker-based Sunbelt Structures, set a target completion date of April 30 to open the road,” she said.
April 30 came and went without an end in sight.
The DOT “is disappointed in the pace of work,” Pope said in an email last week.
In a May interview, Sunbelt president Michael Williams blamed project delays on the rain.
“We’re disappointed we’re still on the job, but we’re not disappointed in the progress we’re making, considering the weather conditions,” he said.
Asked last week about the status of the work, Williams declined to comment, deferring instead to DOT officials.
Gooch, vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he has been interested in the project since his days on the State Transportation Board.
“Everybody’s concerned (about the project),” he said. “(Sunbelt) is having some issues from the recession, just like many other developers and contractors. We’re trying to work through all that with (Sunbelt).
“We don’t want to see any business go under, especially when they’re hiring local people and paying bills. We’re interested in seeing (Sunbelt) finish the project and continue to work in the state.”
Gooch said, “I’m optimistic about the whole project, actually. … It took about 20 years to get it funded, anyway, so we’re all just glad it’s being done finally.”
He dismissed worries that the new road would hurt downtown business, as was a fear earlier in the process. He cited Morrison Moore Parkway in Dahlonega as an example of a once-questioned road that has benefited the entire city.
Morrison Moore “was a blessing for Dahlonega and (Appalachian Parkway) will be for Cleveland as well, I’m sure,” Gooch said.
Area promoters succeeded in getting the new road renamed to better reflect the area’s geography, with the Senate resolution declaring White County “as the gateway to the Appalachian mountain range.”
Besides, “nobody wants to be bypassed,” said Cindy Bailey, president of the White County Chamber Of Commerce.
She is also looking forward to the project’s completion.
“I think it will improve people wanting to come to the downtown area to do business,” Bailey said.
Because of heavy traffic, “people have avoided going to … and through the square,” she said.
Angela Post at Bella’s On Main, a women’s boutique on the square, said, “I think (the new road) is going to be good for downtown Cleveland.”
She believes the traffic that doesn’t need to stop downtown will be gone, loosening congestion for motorists who do.
“Now, if I could just understand how it’s going to work once it goes that way,” Post said, pointing north.
Work began Dec. 29 on the 2.2-mile second phase of the bypass, which will run from Ga. 115 to Ga. 11/U.S. 129 across from Hulsey Road.
The $25 million project includes construction of six bridges, one for each direction of traffic at three locations: Jess Hunt Road, Tesnatee River and Tesnatee Creek.
Like the first phase, the road will be a four-lane divided highway.
Sherry Rogers of Cleveland Diesel Service on Ga. 115, not far from Tesnatee Gap Valley Road, also is hopeful about the road.
“I think it will help the downtown people, once we get used to it, because the traffic on Friday afternoons and holidays is just unbelievable,” she said. “... I think it will help our customers because they won’t have to fight the tourist traffic.”
Rogers sympathized with Sunbelt on the project’s progress.
“It’s been slow moving, but being in the construction business, so to speak — we sell to them — the winter weather was horrible,” she said. “I don’t think it really falls back on (the contractor).”
The parkway’s second leg has a completion date of Oct. 10, 2017, with the work done by G.P.’s Enterprises of Auburn.
A third phase would continue the parkway along Hulsey Road, ending at Ga. 75, Pope said.
“The project is not active,” she said. “Right of way and construction do not have years or funding attached to them, so (there is) no timeline on (the work).”