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Funding shortfall axes county projects

LAWRENCEVILLE - For those waiting for some relief to mall traffic, there is good news and bad news.

The good news: Gwinnett commissioners last approved the second phase of the widening of Ga. Highway 324, also known as Gravel Springs Road.

The bad news: The bridge over Interstate 85 that will connect two soon-to-be four-lane stretches will likely remain two lanes for the foreseeable future.

The bridge widening was one of several Gwinnett casualties in the Georgia Department of Transportation's recent cuts to its work plan due to a $7.7 billion funding shortfall.

According to a Web site recently published by the DOT, there will also be delays to the long-awaited widening of Ga. Highway 20 in Sugar Hill and a project to convert traffic lights into interchanges on Ga. Highway 316 at Collins Hill and Ga. 20.

"It's painful for us to cut," DOT spokeswoman Carrie Hamblin said. "But everybody's feeling the pinch."

Hamblin said she wasn't sure when the decisions were made to move projects off the short-term work plan, but engineers frequently discuss which projects are ready to move forward.

A move into "long-range" status for the Ga. 324 bridge could be devastating, she said.

"Long-range is the virtual abyss," she said. "The reality is, if we don't get more funding, this and many other projects may never happen."

In a state where growth is driving the need for transportation projects up, officials are feeling the crunch from higher material costs such as liquid asphalt, steel and concrete.

For example, during last year's bidding project, the I-85/Ga. 316 interchange project in Gwinnett came in at $147 million, well above the $100 million construction estimate.

That's why transportation funding is expected to be a hot topic during the next legislative session, which begins next month.

"The reality is something has to be done," said DOT Board Chairman Mike Evans, who represents a portion of Gwinnett, when he launched Web site www.whatsthebigidea.us last week. "Legislators and the public can go online and see for themselves the cold hard facts about transportation funding in this state."

Gwinnett Transportation Deputy Director Alan Chapman said the county would continue to work on the engineering for the bridge, which the county is doing at its own expense in hopes that it will hurry along the state.

"I think it's an important project to everybody," he said.

Earlier this year, the county approved the contract for the first phase of the widening - from Ga. 20 to I-85. Last week, a $6.758 million bid for the second section from I-85 to Ga. 124 got the nod. The state has contributed a total of $5 million for the two phases, but was also responsible for constructing the connecting bridge.

"I think traveling is going to be safer," with the current work, Chapman said. "Of course the bridge it pretty critical."