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Massive I-985 project nears completion
Two-year drought helped speed work along
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Toby Hammonds, project manager for the Georgia Department of Transportation, talks about the pride he takes in the nearly completed $75 million reconstruction of Interstate 985 at Exit 16 and surrounding roads.
OAKWOOD - Montie Robinson remembers his newly adopted city having a much different look when he began serving as a councilman in 1976.

He recalled a general store named Jimmy's, two beauty salons and the post office.

"That was it. That was Oakwood," said Robinson, who moved to the city in 1967 and still is on the council. "Mundy Mill was just a paved road over there, nothing but pastures and cattle on each side of the road, just farmland."

That's a distant memory.

Mundy Mill Road now is a four-lane major commercial artery that turns into six lanes and more as it flows under Interstate 985, the site of Hall County's most ambitious road project ever.

The $75 million Georgia Department of Transportation project hit its third anniversary Saturday and now, it appears, the work could end by Labor Day, said Teri Pope, a DOT spokeswoman.

At one point, the project was set for a February 2010 completion.

"We definitely got help with the drought in the early part of the project. We didn't have as many rain days and that helped expedite the project," Pope said.

"But you also have to give kudos to the folks actually building the project. They work six days a week most of the time ... to get it done ahead of schedule."

E.R. Snell Contractor of Snellville is the road builder.

Rebuilding I-985's interchange at Ga. 53/Mundy Mill Road, or Exit 16, is the main initiative. But the work also has involved side projects, such as widening Atlanta Highway to four lanes and building a segment of the four-lane Thurmon Tanner Parkway.

Also, crews are finishing up the new Exit 17, or where I-985 meets Atlanta Highway. For now, only southbound I-985 motorists can exit onto Atlanta Highway and Atlanta Highway motorists can head northbound on I-985.

As the project draws to a close, northbound I-985 motorists will be able to exit onto Atlanta Highway - including going through a tunnel, lighted at night - and Atlanta Highway motorists will be able to head southbound on I-985.

"Opening these new ramps will give us more capacity on (Mundy Mill Road) and alleviate congestion," Pope said. "Exit 17 ... will be signed as the entrance to Gainesville State and Lanier Tech, again getting that traffic off (Mundy Mill Road) and using (Atlanta Highway) and Thurmon Tanner to both campuses."

The key cog in the project's completion is finishing up the new northbound bridge over Mundy Mill Road.

Once that's completed, Pope said, other aspects of the project can be finished.

Motorists may recall separate bridges at the Exit 16 interchange, one for northbound traffic and the other for southbound traffic. Those old bridges were 180 feet long and 40 feet wide.

The new bridge will be one structure featuring southbound and northbound lanes. At 164 feet, it also will be wide enough to accommodate adding an additional lane in each direction, if that is ever needed.

And because the project calls for more lanes on Mundy Mill underneath, the new bridge will be longer, at 492 feet.

Work is expected to wrap up on the bridge in July with asphalt paving starting in August.

Crews now are paving Frontage Road off Atlanta Highway and near Thurmon Tanner Parkway, at the state's park-and-ride lot.

The work, which has limited access to two Frontage Road businesses and Gainesville State and Lanier Technical colleges, will take a couple of weeks to complete, Pope said.

With lane closings and such, the project has caused some delays.

Motorists can expect more as work begins to wind down.

At some point soon, crews will start paving on the southbound shoulder of I-985, requiring the left lane to be closed during the day between Atlanta Highway and Mundy Mill Road.

And paving will take place on Atlanta Highway and Mundy Mill Road.

"We expect the final asphalt paving to take about a month, weather permitting," Pope said.

That park-and-ride lot also will be paved in July and August.

"The last of the work will include installing cable barrier in the median of I-985 from Plainview Road to (Atlanta Highway), lighting, final dressing of the shoulders, final signal timing and synchronization, and punch-list items," Pope said.

She said "extended wet weather" would throw off the schedule.

Hot, steamy and mostly dry days have helped move work along, so far, as workers could attest to last week.

But Toby Hammonds, who is managing the project for the DOT, said he believes the end result will be worth it.

"Me and my guys have worked real hard," he said. "I feel like our fingerprints are all over this job. I can hold my head up high when I drive through it, and I live just a few miles away.

"... I think (the new roads) will benefit the community, the citizens of Hall County and the state of Georgia," he said.

Edna T. Dale, who lives in a red brick house off Atlanta Highway near the Exit 17 bridge, has watched the work from day one, with her husband dealing with the DOT over right-of-way issues.

"It's more traffic, dust and all," she said of the project. "The traffic doesn't bother me too much, actually. You're closed up in a house with the air conditioning on, anyhow. You don't know what's going on out there."

She and her husband built the house "years and years ago" and raised their children there. Back in those days, there was less traffic and more countryside.

Dale said she doesn't particularly want to move from her corner of the busy thoroughfare.

"I don't want to change at my age. I'm not sweet 16," she said.

Pope said the community "has been very supportive and has worked with us" on the project.

"We can't work in the road without getting in the road, and that means getting in someone's way," she said. "... We'd like to thank everyone for living through the construction pains with us. We are almost finished and we look forward to getting out of your way."

For Robinson, the interchange could mark the beginning of a new era - one of renewed growth - for Oakwood, especially as the economy starts to rebound.

The DOT is working on another project, extending the four-lane Thurmon Tanner Parkway from Plainview Road to Mundy Mill Road, work that is expected to be completed in December 2010.

"I think we're going to see a lot of new businesses cropping up," he said. "I think we've (already) got a lot of interest, (with) people talking."

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