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Looking back at five years of the Forsyth County transportation bond
WEB 369 at 400

For all the positive accolades Forsyth County receives for its parks, schools and proximity to Lake Lanier, there is perhaps one complaint that arises more than any other, traffic in the county.

Just over five years ago, county leaders took a big step to fix some of those problems.

In November 2014, Forsyth County voters approved the county’s transportation bond with 63% of voters, about 35,000 votes, in favor and 37%, about 20,000 votes, against, which provided $200 million for road projects in the county, most notably the widening of Ga. 400 to three lanes on each side to Hwy. 369.

“I think the positives are the projects that are done have made big impacts. I think 400 was critical. I think families are reaping the benefits of getting home 30 minutes early. I’ve heard wonderful things from those families,” said District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills, who was also on the board when the bond passed.

Along with the Ga. 400 widening project, the bond included several projects on state roads, including the widening of Post Road, widening of Hwy. 369 and Ga. 400 interchanges at Hwy. 369 and McGinnis Ferry Road. In total, those funds received about $81 million for the bond, along with funding from the state and other sources.

When the bond originally passed, the widening of Ga. 400 was projected to go from McFarland Parkway to Bald Ridge Marina Road, or Exit 15, however the project was extended to the intersection with Hwy. 369 when bids came in lower than expected, meaning those funds could be used to extend the project.

Since the bond passed, a common refrain from county leaders has been that kicking in money helped improve the relationship with GDOT and helped projects become a reality more quickly.

“We had many, many meetings with GDOT and developed a very good rapport with them and felt the need to partner up with them,” said Brian Tam, a former commissioner for District 2. “There are 159 counties in Georgia, and I can assure you there are 159 counties asking for GDOT money, so in order to get to the top of the list, I felt we needed to be proactive and try to solve our own issues with their help. You can’t go down there and just try to dump your issues in their lap.”

The Ga. 400 widening moved at a rapid pace for a road project. Construction on the 13.4-mile stretch of road started in November 2015, a year after voters approved the bond and by October 2016, 8 miles of the road were done and open to the public. By June 2017 the entire project was completed except work on a bridge over Lake Lanier, which has since finished.

“The public felt really strongly about the widening of Ga. 400. They really didn’t care if it was a state road or a county road, all they knew was they were sitting in traffic and they wanted it fixed,” Tam said. “With that being one of the projects on the bond, I think it became very popular with the citizens. It’s great to see that project mostly completed. Of course, we still have to incorporate the 369 interchange.”

Tam, who served on the commission from 2005-16, served as chair of a transportation committee charged with coming up with projects for the bond, along with other members of the community and stakeholders.

“I think the impact has been tremendous,” Tam said of the bond. “We earned the trust of the public, I think, starting with the [2008] greenspace bond because we did what we said we were going to do, we being the board of commissioners, so when it became time to go for the transportation bond, I think the public trusted us.”

 

County roads

Along with the state road projects, projects for county-maintained roads including $43.4 million for an extension to connect the two existing sections of Ronald Reagan Boulevard, $63.6 million for road widenings and $10 million for traffic safety improvements.

“They have quick-start projects, so I’ve been able to get those in my district, subtle little things like at State Barn Road, we were able to add a quick-start project where you could go around cars waiting to turn,” Mills said of the safety projects. “They don’t cost a whole lot, but they give citizens time just to be able to go around them.”

The road widening projects were for Brookwood, McGinnis Ferry, Pilgrim Mill, Union Hill and Old Atlanta roads.

While there were many positives with the bond, there have been some issues, one of which is a result of state House Bill 170, which was passed in 2015 and provided additional state funding for projects.

While that benefitted some Forsyth County projects, it also meant the county and state were now competing for the same companies and employees to do their projects.

“It’s like we’re competing against each other for those people that do that type of work, so the cost of doing those kinds of projects has sky-rocketed, and so they delay in being able to get them done has gone up too.”

Mills said the problem wasn’t limited to Forsyth and also impact projects across the state.

Also contributing to higher than expected costs is the original funding numbers for the project are now more than five years old and have increased since.

Despite those issues, Mills said the projects have been popular for voters in her district, particularly the widenings of Ga. 400 and Hwy. 369, the 369 interchange and a new road, known as the Coal Mountain Connector, that will span from Bridgetowne Drive to Settingdown Road and from Settingdown to Coal Mountain Drive and the north Forsyth cluster of schools, Coal Mountain Elementary, North Forsyth Middle and North Forsyth High schools.

“All that’s going to be huge. It’s going to change Coal Mountain, it really is. It’s been a long time coming” Mills said. “The widening itself would be good, but it would create problems in its own ways because once you added the turning lanes in, you would actually have six lanes and you think about Bridgetowne … it’s almost 800 homes that would be turning left to try to go to school in the mornings.“

With five years of experience, some projects completed and others on the way, Mills said she didn’t rule out a future bond to deal with ongoing traffic woes but wondered whether voters would want to do so through a bond or a potential transportation special purpose local option sales tax (TSPLOST), essentially either paying for the projects through property or sales taxes.

“It would be up to the citizens, but I think it’s the only way to get caught up, not even get ahead,” Mills said. “I think that we need more four-lane roads all throughout the county. There are other options. There’s TSPLOST, which we’ve never explored and we could add up to another penny on sales tax. I’m not saying that’s the answer, but some areas have chosen TSPLOST.”