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The Road Ahead: Sales tax would help pay for 12.4-mile widening
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James Patterson has been down this road before, quite literally.

He operated a tomato and boiled peanut stand for years in Florida “until they built a highway and put me out of business,” he said. “That suited me all right, because I wanted to get out of the heat.”

These days, he’s working a stand off Ga. 11/U.S. 129 north of Blairsville and faces a similar fate if voters in the 13-county Georgia Mountains region approve a 1 percent transportation sales tax on July 31.

But he has no particular problems with that. “Sometimes, it gets congested out here, so widening the road would be good,” he said.

Union would receive $25 million for the project, which calls for widening U.S. 129 to four lanes from Town Mountain Road north to the North Carolina state line, a distance of 12.4 miles.

The project’s total cost is estimated at $50 million, based on 2011 dollars, with the balance of the funding coming from federal and state gas tax money.

The county also would receive $725,408 to convert the Glenn Gooch Bypass to a truck bypass around Blairsville, or from U.S. 129 to Ga. 515/Young Harris Highway.

The bypass work will involve a traffic light at Ga. 11 and Shoe Factory Road and otherwise bring the road up to Georgia Department of Transportation standards.

Once the work is done, the road will become Ga. 11/U.S. 129.

The project is significant, said Mayor Jim Conley.

“We have a lot of truck traffic, a lot of logging trucks that come through town all the time,” he said. “The only traffic we’re going to bypass is the truck traffic, keeping that from downtown.”

The project also would be key because the city is preparing to embark on a downtown improvement project, Conley said.

As far as the U.S. 129 project, North Carolina has plans to continue the widening on its side another four miles, said Lamar Paris, Union County’s sole commissioner.

“They’ve got it on their long-range plan,” he said. “Georgia had agreed to do some of the engineering work on the North Carolina side to get some of the cost estimates.”

The widened U.S. 129 eventually would tie into U.S. 64, which runs between Chattanooga and Knoxville in Tennessee.

The Georgia side of that road “is the busiest highway in the county,” Paris said. “When I came into office in 2001, it had more traffic accidents between Blairsville and Gum Log Road than all other highways in the county combined.”

He approached DOT about ways to improve congestion. Union was able to get some federal money for some turn lanes.

“There’s been a huge safety issue there,” Paris said.

Paris served as chairman of the Georgia Mountains regional roundtable, which put together the projects list for the July 31 referendum.

He has maintained throughout the process, which began after the General Assembly’s passage of the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, that the regional improvement significant to Union residents wasn’t even within county borders.

“In (Union’s) case, we were willing to take a little bit less in that the Cleveland Bypass project and the four-lane (widening) of U.S. 129 to or near the hospital was a huge interest to us and our citizens,” Paris said, referring to the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.

Construction is expected to begin soon on a four-lane bypass connecting U.S. 129 south of Cleveland to Ga. 115 west of the city.

If the sales tax passes, the bypass would be extended from Ga. 115 to U.S. 129 north of Cleveland, and U.S. 129 would be widened to four lanes from Limestone Parkway in Hall County to Cleveland.

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