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U.S. 129 widening project may get funding
DOT board OKs $350 million for projects statewide
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The long-awaited widening of U.S. 129 in East Hall is in the running for state money that could put it one step closer to construction.

The State Transportation Board voted unanimously Thursday to spend as much as $350 million on projects in an effort to jump start Georgia's struggling transportation construction industry.

Georgia Department of Transportation staff was instructed to set aside about $250 million for capital and maintenance projects and to use the remaining $100 million for right-of-way acquisition needed to gear up more projects for construction.

The U.S. 129 project is being considered for right-of-way acquisition, which is estimated to cost $35 million.

"None of the projects (on the list) are for sure," said Teri Pope, spokeswoman for the DOT's Gainesville-based District 1. "They have met (certain) criteria and could be chosen by the board for this additional money."

The U.S. 129 right-of-way acquisition carries the biggest price tag of any project on the state's list of right-of-way projects.

The project calls for widening U.S. 129 from Gillsville Highway to the Pendergrass Bypass in Jackson County.

The Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization's Policy Committee has voted to give the project high priority if funding should become available.

"This is a perfect opportunity to make some progress to enhance connectivity between Interstate 985 and Interstate 85 and to Athens," said Srikanth Yamala, the organization's transportation planning manager, in response to the state board's vote.

The MPO conducts the Gainesville-Hall Transportation Study, which is the federally mandated transportation planning process for the Gainesville Urbanized Area as identified in the 2000 U.S. Census.

The organization has estimated that $220 million is needed in the next six years to address "today's development patterns" in Hall County alone.

Other key Hall County projects awaiting funding include the Sardis Road Connector, a new Exit 14 off I-985 and widening Spout Springs Road.

Also under consideration for the state money is a $23 million resurfacing of Ga. 365 from Ga. 52 in Lula to Ga. 17/U.S. 441 in Habersham County.

The $350 million will come from the DOT's fund balance, or its coffer of state motor fuel tax revenues.

"It is the money we use to provide matching funds for the federal dollars we get for projects and also the money we use for salaries and the department's administrative expenses," said David Spear, press secretary for the department.

"... We have been very conservative and cautious in managing that money in the past couple of years."

The fund has about $600 million.

"We can commit the $350 million as the board has directed and we'll still have a $250 million contingency reserve," Spear said.

"This is an important step," Board Chairman Rudy Bowen of Gwinnett County said. "While the state's economy is recovering, it is taking longer than expected. And this industry needs as much support as we can provide. I am certain our action today will end up creating and saving jobs across Georgia."

David Doss of Rome said, "The board and the (DOT) have been cautious and conservative in maintaining a healthy fund balance. That is commendable, but these are extraordinary times with extraordinary needs."

Board member Steve Gooch, who lives in Dahlonega and whose district includes Hall County, couldn't be reached for comment.

Projects will be determined by December, with bid lettings to begin in January. Georgia has 270 projects with an estimated cost of more than $650 million that are ready to go out to bid but lack funding.