Many commuters in Gainesville know all about the traffic at Dawsonville Highway and McEver Road, a route for people traveling from Oakwood or toward Dawsonville and the center of the city’s shopping and restaurants.
Gainesville officials have noticed the problem, too, and worked with the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization on a study to look at whether a connector road, going from Dawsonville Highway to McEver without passing through the current intersection, could work.
The final study was recently completed, but the results were surprising to some — an alternate route likely would not be worth the cost.
The Georgia Department of Transportation publishes traffic counts at spots statewide, and in 2017, the year with the most recent published data, Dawsonville Highway near Shallowford Road averaged more than 27,000 cars a day. On McEver Road, near the intersection with Dawsonville Highway, a daily average of more than 22,000 cars traveled in 2017.
There were 99 crashes at the intersection in 2018, Gainesville Police Sgt. Kevin Holbrook told The Times in January.
Those cars can get backed up at the intersection, especially when drivers want to turn left from McEver to Dawsonville Highway, according to Clyde Morris and Mandy Harris, two area residents who want to see the problem addressed.
“I view the traffic situation as being bad and getting worse and getting ready to be exacerbated by the increases in development that are on the books,” said Morris, who has lived in the area for 19 years.
An 800-home retirement community has been approved for Ahaluna Drive, which meets Dawsonville Highway near the Culver’s restaurant.
“There is a lot of construction and development that is about to take place, and when it does, it’s going to be too late to fix the traffic because we’re all going to be stuck,” Morris said.
Harris, who has lived off of Dawsonville Highway since 2003, said traffic understandably came with development, and other solutions have not fully fixed the problem yet.
“It was quite unpopulated on that corner, and McEver was a two-lane road. … All the construction down through here has just added to it,” Harris said.
She also said she hopes that officials’ focus on growth along Ga. 365 does not distract from the traffic problem along Dawsonville Highway.
The city’s ‘don’t block the box’ initiative, which used signs and social media to discourage drivers from blocking the intersection, highlighted the need to address the problem, Harris said. A Dec. 21 Facebook post by the Gainesville Police Department received several comments about people’s traffic woes along Dawsonville Highway.
Harris said the study confirmed what many drivers already knew — that the intersection is a through route, rather than most people’s final destination. McEver Road can be taken further south toward Oakwood, and people coming from the other direction can turn on to Dawsonville Highway to either go into downtown Gainesville or toward Dawsonville or Cumming.
After looking at eight alternate routes from Dawsonville Highway to McEver, consulting firm RS&H, which was hired for the study, settled on two finalists.
One of the routes would begin at the Dawsonville Highway entrance to the North Lake Square shopping center, home to Academy Sports + Outdoors. The half-mile road would then go behind the McEver Corners shopping center, which has Kohl’s and Michaels, with a speed limit of 35 miles per hour. Construction would cost about $4.5 million for the four-lane option and $3.3 million for two lanes. That road could have been either two or four lanes and would have affected nine homes and 10 commercial parcels.
That first option was estimated to cut down on traffic delay by 3 percent in the afternoons if built by 2020, but delays were projected to increase in the morning by about 10 percent. However, by 2040, the study predicted that if built, the road could reduce delays by 9 percent in the afternoons, but traffic in the morning would be about the same as if the connector had never been built.
The other connector identified as a finalist would take a similar route but be 1.5 miles long with a 35 miles per hour speed limit. It would start at Ahaluna Drive, going behind the same McEver Corners shopping center with a wider buffer, then connecting to McEver near Spring Road. That route would cost about $17.7 million for four lanes and $12.7 million for two lanes. That option would affect six homes if it was two lanes and seven homes if it was four lanes, and six commercial parcels would be affected with either width.
This second, longer option was projected in the study to have more of an impact than the other route considered. In 2020, delays would have only increased by about 3 percent in the mornings and were predicted to improve by 6 percent in the afternoons. But by 2040, delays could have been 23 percent better in the mornings and 14 percent better in the afternoons.
Costs in the study could have been higher once the project began, Steve Cote of RS&H told the Gainesville City Council in February.
“With other costs added in there, if you add in the right of way property acquisitions and utility costs, you’re going to have a greater number. … With all of that, we don’t see an alternate (route) being a good use of your resources,” Cote said.
The study used a Georgia Department of Transportation formula to weigh the costs against the benefits, and it was determined that an alternate route would not cut down on traffic enough to justify the expense.
So, other solutions are being considered. The city wants to encourage inter-parcel connectivity, or routes between shopping centers and developments so drivers do not have to go back on to Dawsonville Highway.
“I think probably the most short-term idea we’re looking at, is as development comes through, the city has code and requirements in their ordinance to have inter-parcel connectivity,” Chris Rotalsky, Gainesville’s director of public works, said. “If you’re at one restaurant or store, and you’re looking to go to another one, having that inter-parcel connectivity helps to keep traffic off of the main line and just move from one parcel to the next.”
Both McEver and Dawsonville Highway are state-owned. GDOT plans to convert right-turn lanes into through travel lanes from Ahaluna Drive south to Shallowford Road. Right-of-way acquisition is set to begin in March 2021, with the project going out for bid in March 2022.
“The effects of that additional lane will need to be witnessed to see how it can be improved or what the next step in improvement for that corridor will be,” Rotalsky said.
A continuous flow intersection, which would separate left-turn lanes by placing them before the main intersection, also is being considered. Construction would only start in 2029 if that project is chosen.
The GHMPO also hopes to start making some improvements, including a westbound right-turn lane and second through lane, to the intersection in 2029.
Morris said he would like to see some solutions come sooner than that, though.
“There are really no immediate solutions being planned,” he said. “…We’ve got a lot of development coming in, but we don’t have any traffic solutions.”
Gainesville uses its Intelligent Transportation System, which allows public works and public safety employees to monitor traffic in real time and adjust signals if needed.
“When we see volume build up at one particular intersection, we can then start adding time to the main line and taking time away from the side street movements or incoming movements to try to flush that traffic out,” Rotalsky said. “It allows us to really maximize what we have in place now.”
About half of the city’s 87 intersections are in the software, Rotalsky said.