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Castleberry quandary
Some don't see need for project
Road WEB 1
A sales tax project could widen Castleberry Road, from here at the city limits of Cumming, where it narrows to two lanes, south to Bethelview Road. Some residents question the need for the expansion. - photo by Jim Dean


Castleberry Road is making its third appearance as an improvement project on a referendum to extend the 1-cent sales tax.

Early voting has begun on the special purpose local option sales tax, known as SPLOST VII, and Election Day is Nov. 8.

Initially approved as part of SPLOST V in 2003, the Castleberry effort hasn’t been completed and remains on the list as a rollover project.

Once a project has been approved in a sales tax vote, it has to be completed by law.

This year, however, residents have rekindled debate over what extent the county must — and should — expand the road.

The project has been carried over due to the economic downturn, which has hampered tax collections, and the county granting residents’ requests to lower its priority.

Plans call for widening Castleberry to four lanes, but some residents would prefer a smaller scope. The proposed widening, they say, is unnecessary.

“We have roads that really need fixing,” said Tony DeMaria, who lives in the district. “This one doesn’t need fixing.”

Castleberry stumped commissioners in July, when it approved the referendum’s project list.

They debated whether the road should become four lanes, three lanes, or placed in the second tier, which is reserved for projects that are tackled only if tax collections fund all first-tier projects.

The first $101 million of the estimated $200 million from SPLOST VII would go toward building a new courthouse and expanding the jail, among others.

Transportation projects total about $70 million in the county’s upper funding tier.

Ultimately, the $9.4 million set for Castleberry was split between tiers. But what that means has not been specified.

During a recent town hall meeting, Commission Chairman Brian Tam said the project’s first phase would extend the four lanes from Cumming to Piney Grove Road.

Commissioner Todd Levent said he persuaded the group to divide the funding in the hopes the available money would allow for a smaller makeover.

“I was hoping the $5 million would be enough to do … two lanes with turn lanes [into the neighborhoods] and straightening the curves to make it safer,” Levent said.

He added that four lanes with a 20-foot median would be overkill, and the money could be better served on other sales tax transportation projects.

The upcoming vote, however, has little bearing on the overall project requirements, Levent said.

“If SPLOST VII does not pass, we still have to build a road improvement because it’s already passed SPLOST before, we’ve spent money on it already, and the law requires us to complete it,” he said.

County Attorney Ken Jarrard confirmed Forsyth must complete the project, and that abandoning it is nearly impossible. Past actions have led to a four-lane concept, so he said the commission would need a compelling reason to switch.

“It’s going to have to be one that would survive judicial scrutiny,” Jarrard said. “If a taxpayer were to challenge the county, we would need to have a reason why we had taken one approach for several years and then changed it.”

Voters approved SPLOST V in March 2003, and commissioners decided on the four-lane proposal the following month. In September 2005, the project’s priority was relegated to the bottom. Castleberry then rolled over to the SPLOST VI vote in 2008, which also passed.

Since that time, the commission never officially indicated any other direction, said John Cunard, the county’s engineering director.

The county has spent nearly $9 million on the design and right of way acquisition for the project during previous sales tax collections, Cunard said.

If the county opted to reduce the scope without a costly redesign, Cunard said Castleberry would simply be widened to accommodate four lanes. The county would pave only two and leave a large grass median.

If SPLOST VII passes, and collections fulfill estimates, the project would likely not be completed until 2017, Cunard said.

“If you project out your traffic volumes over the next 20 or 30 years … there’s no question that the volume’s going to be there … for a four-lane roadway, then you don’t build anything less than that,” he said.

In tough economic times and without a need for the growth, Kim Walsh thinks otherwise.

“I understand that the engineering department gives [the commission] a wish list, but it’s their job to be the gatekeeper,” said Walsh, a resident of the Creekside subdivision.

She contends data from traffic studies show the widening isn’t needed, even decades from now.

The projections in the original 2004 study never materialized, Walsh said, despite the addition of an elementary school, shopping area and more residents.

An updated study, conducted in August, severely reduces the growth forecast in 2004, she said. “The high number of 7,218 [existing daily trips] is not even what they projected in the original traffic study.”

District resident Tony DeMaria maintains the projections in both the 2004 and 2011 studies are flawed.

They show trips exceeding the county’s expectations for growth by an additional 50 percent, he said, and don’t consider that rate likely will decrease as the area is built out.

DeMaria said he believes a “no” vote Nov. 8 will make a difference in the legal requirements.

Without the funding from sales tax revenue, the county would be more likely to reduce the project, said DeMaria, a member of Forsyth Citizens for Responsible Growth.

Commissioner Pete Amos said residents have questioned previous road widening efforts.

Windermere Parkway, he said, was made four lanes despite opposition, and people appreciate it today.

Old Atlanta Road remains on the SPLOST VII list after being pushed back, and has become graded an “F” in terms of traffic efficiency.

“You’ve got to look to the future of these roads today,” Amos said. “It may be 10 years before we get to build. What’s it going to be like then?”