Is the proposed 80-mile highway linking Cartersville and Lawrenceville needed to accommodate long-term transportation needs in Atlanta's far northern suburbs, or will it mainly be needed to handle the traffic demands from added sprawl that would be generated by the road itself?
The question is most relevant for the three fast-growing northern counties of Bartow, Cherokee and Forsyth, where the Northern Arc has long been promoted by the Georgia Department of Transportation -- and now Gov. Roy Barnes -- as the answer to congestion and safety woes.
But inconsistencies and contradictions between thick studies by the DOT and the Atlanta Regional Commission, as well as the governor's own proposals, leave doubt -- after 20 years of debate -- about exactly what the project is intended to accomplish.
"Squishy" is the word Cherokee County Commission Chairman Emily Lemcke uses to describe arguments in favor of building an east-west connector 20 miles north of the existing Perimeter. By that she means the rationales are mired in projections and statistics that tend to shift in significance depending on the audience. The real reason she believes the road is being pursued is to open up the northern suburbs to new development.
According to a three-year DOT study on the western half of the Northern Arc completed in September, the road would improve east-west traffic flow between U.S. 41 and Ga. 400, relieve congestion on local roads and create a corridor that eventually could include a rail line. The study dismisses a rail-only option as infeasible: "Transit alternatives by themselves are not as strong as highway options."
But the road envisioned in the DOT study is substantially different from what Barnes is advocating. Both potential routes advanced by the DOT report include seven highway interchanges between and including U.S. 41 and Ga. 400 -- four in Cherokee County alone.
Barnes has voiced support for a more limited-access proposal studied by the ARC, which would have ramps only at I-75 in Bartow County, I-575 in Cherokee, Ga. 400 in Forsyth and I-85 in Gwinnett, as a way to discourage additional sprawl from forming along the corridor.
The DOT study estimates its version of the road would bring only 7,000 newcomers to the three northern counties by the year 2035 who otherwise would not have moved there, and even boasts that the Northern Arc would help concentrate the inevitable growth along the central corridor, resulting in more controlled land use.
While it may seem ridiculous to suggest that a freeway running across exurban horse pastures, a wildlife management area and dozens of creeks could promote "smart growth," in the DOT world view, building a four-lane highway before it's deemed absolutely necessary is proactive. Says Frank Danchetz, the DOT's chief engineer: "For the first time in a long time, I feel we're ahead of the curve."
The DOT study also doesn't include Barnes' plan for buying 1,000 feet of right-of-way along a 60-mile stretch to serve as adjoining open space. To finance the expensive project, Barnes intends to use debt, issuing bonds against expected future federal highway funds to the state. The General Assembly appears set to approve his funding plan; the measure has been approved by the Senate and, at press time, was before the House Transportation Committee.
It's unclear when the road would be open to traffic. An environmental impact statement, which could take two years to complete, is needed before the Northern Arc could be added to the ARC's 2003 Regional Transportation Plan, a necessary step in securing federal funding. That leaves a slim four years before Barnes' fast-track opening date of 2007, eight years before its scheduled completion date of 2015.
The environmental study is crucial because it will show whether the western half of the Northern Arc would allow the region as a whole to maintain air-quality standards, says Jane Hayse, the ARC's chief transportation planner.
Those studies will be going on at the same time that the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority is conducting its own $7-million North Area Study, which is designed to take a broad overview of the northern suburbs to develop transportation and land-use strategies for the area, and is scheduled for completion late next year.
Since GRTA's work is expected to inform the 2003 Regional Transportation Plan, it could seem like putting the cart before the horse to push forward with the Northern Arc before gauging the overall needs for the area. But GRTA transportation chief Jim Croy, who was hand-picked by Barnes, says the two efforts can coexist.
The estimated cost of the Northern Arc has nearly doubled since the 1999 ARC study, from $1.2 billion to more than $2 billion, about the same price tag as the ARC's entire three-year package of all planned roadway improvements in the 10-county region. Many of those hundreds of proposals are never completed because of shortages in local funds, says Hayse, who has yet to see the DOT's official breakdown of the spiraling price for the highway. "The cost depends on who you're talking to," she says.
The DOT study hangs much of its case for the Northern Arc on the dangers and deficiencies of State Route 20 and, indeed, the proposed highway roughly parallels the country road along its winding path from Cartersville to Lawrenceville. Where the two-lane SR 20 crosses the width of Cherokee County, it's considered one of the most hazardous roads in metro Atlanta.
The DOT predicts that the amount of traffic on SR 20 in Cherokee's eastern half will nearly quadruple to nearly impassable levels by 2035, largely because of traffic headed to and from Ga. 400. If nothing is done, the DOT study contends, the worsening congestion along SR 20 is likely to throw even more traffic onto the already-crippled I-285, nearly 25 miles to the south.
Yet a series of ARC projections, conducted between 1994 to 2000, show the Northern Arc would do nothing to reduce traffic on I-285 and, paradoxically, would actually contribute to the Central Perimeter becoming even more crowded than it would be without the new highway.
The Northern Arc wouldn't benefit I-285 because east-west traffic through the three northern counties is expected to remain at a minimum; even trucks hauling freight between I-75 and I-85 are projected to make up only 17 percent of all traffic on the new highway. Also, the ARC notes, I-285 is effectively saturated: For every driver who can be diverted to a different route, there's another who's been avoiding the highway, ready to take his place.
Bryan Hager, who heads the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl Campaign, concedes he doesn't qualify as an impartial observer, but he becomes especially enraged when confronted by the frequent argument that the Northern Arc would provide relief for I-285.
"The governor says he wants to build this road to take traffic off I-285, which is bullshit; he's been lied to, at best," he says.
Cherokee Commission Chairwoman Lemcke, a staunch Northern Arc opponent, feels similarly frustrated when told the road is needed because SR 20 won't be able to handle the demands placed on it by booming growth in Cherokee.
Projections that show Cherokee doubling its population -- 143,500 in 2000, according to the recent Census -- by the year 2035 are based on trends that have been largely reversed since slow-growth sentiment swept her into office two years ago, Lemcke says.
"They're assuming the same rate of growth we had over the past five years or so, but we've already slowed things down," she says. "I think they're doing this trend analysis to support this project."
In fact, the DOT study projects that local trips within Bartow, Cherokee and Forsyth -- in which drivers don't leave the county -- will rise in the next 35 years to account for at least 70 percent of all traffic there. But, with only one access point in each county, the Northern Arc would do little to serve local traffic.
Despite all the studies, the biggest question -- the impact the Northern Arc would have in creating additional suburban sprawl -- hasn't been answered. But there's plenty of reason to believe the road would spark a development rush.
Although the Regional Business Council, which represents 15 area chambers of commerce, has no official position on the Northern Arc, Executive Director Jeff Rader agrees that many developers and business owners are looking to the road to kick-start a building boom.
"It's politically incorrect [for road supporters] to say, 'We need this road to spur growth out here,' " he says. "Instead, they say, 'The growth is coming, so we have to prepare for it.' "
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