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County on track to meet about West Winder Bypass

WINDER - What happens to a dream deferred?

In the case of the East Winder Bypass, it migrated west, hibernated for a few years and eventually changed its name to reflect its new environment.

And so the East Winder Bypass - a proposed route around the city meant to minimize traffic congestion downtown - became the West Winder Bypass, a road that seeks to connect Ga. Highway 316 to Interstate 85 and ease traffic congestion through downtown Winder.

But even a new name and a move to the other side of town can't guarantee that the bypass will be built.

There are historic properties to worry about. The environmental impact. Money. And whether the residents who derailed the bypass in its original form would even be interested in its reincarnation.

In 1999, the Georgia Department of Transportation was ready to get the East Winder Bypass off the ground. They brought three different routes to a public meeting, hoping to leave with a plan that everybody liked. Instead, GDOT spokeswoman Teri Pope said, 550 Barrow County residents hated the project.

"There was no consensus at all," Pope said. "It was getting so far out of town that it was negating the purpose. People were starting to feel like they were going through east

bumble."

Residents felt like the initial route - which let off where Ga. Highways 11 and 53 split - was too close to the city, GDOT Director of Administration Todd Long said. Long, who was a district engineer when the project started, said the outcry against that route stemmed from a feeling that a bypass had to be further away from Winder.

When engineers tried to move the bypass east, they ran into a new problem.

"It was littered with historic property," Long said. "Nothing that was on the historic registry, but it could be."

And then voters rejected a penny sales tax, the first requested in the county, that would have funded the county's right-of-way purchases for the project.

So the East Winder Bypass languished.

But growth in Barrow County exploded, traffic got worse and more and more trucks crammed Winder's streets, driving the six state routes that crisscross the city and trying to get to I-85.

And the idea of the bypass was reborn. But this time, on the other side of town, where excessive development hasn't claimed open land, where there are fewer historic sites and where, county leaders hope, the solution to Winder's traffic woes can finally be found.

"You can see the open land," County Chief of Operations Keith Lee said. "You can see the connectivity that can actually occur."

The estimated cost of the four-mile project tops $28 million, with the county buying the land for the right-of-way and the state doing the construction. Eventually, Lee said, GDOT plans to upgrade Ga. Highway 211, a project he hopes will be hastened if the West Winder Bypass goes forward. The path from Ga. Highway 316 to I-85 will be about 10 miles along that route, the best way to get from one road to the other without going through Gwinnett.

The proposed route - which Lee likened to the four-lane divided Sugarloaf Parkway in Gwinnett County - begins at Tom Miller Road where it intersects with Patrick Mill Road. The route would follow Patrick Mill for a short distance, and an interchange would be built where the road currently intersects with Ga. Highway 316. It would be the first interchange on 316 in the county.

The bypass would continue to Ga. Highway 211, with intersections at Bill Rutledge Road, Carl-Bethlehem Road, Matthews School Road, a new Bankhead Highway Connector and Pearl Pentecost Road, which would be shifted in the project.

An overpass would also be constructed at the railroad tracks at Bankhead Highway, a valuable move for anyone who has ever been stuck in Winder waiting for a train to pass. There is only one underpass in the city now.

"It's been a long process for people who have lived here a long time," Lee said. "It looks like we have an end in sight."

Delaine House, director of transportation for the Barrow County Schools, lives on Patrick Mill Road. She said if the bypass is approved, she hopes to sell her 100-year-old home to a group that will develop the land commercially. Now, traffic on Patrick Mill is so bad that she has trouble getting out of her driveway each morning.

House said she doesn't like the fact that the proposed route is behind her home - she'd rather it go right through the middle of her house, so the county could buy her out. The traffic on Patrick Mill and construction in the area have convinced her that county officials have determined the right route for the bypass.

"We need to get a lot of traffic out of the middle of Barrow County, and this is the only way it's going to be done," she said. "Traffic in this city is just awful. If they can divert some of it around, it's going to help."

Janice Hall, another Patrick Mill resident, said she has lived on the road her entire life. Patrick Mill is one of the most heavily trafficked roads in the county, she said, and officials need to move forward with construction before traffic gets even worse in the area.

"I wish they'd hurry up and start building it," she said. "From 4:30 in the morning, it's zoom, zoom, zoom. ... They need to go ahead and do it now before they let everything explode."

The plan, called a project concept report, was submitted to GDOT in October for approval. Public Works Director Terry Darragh said the county is simply waiting for the right signatures before moving on with the project and holding a public information open house. Pope said the meeting should be held within the next year.

That phase is where a record number of residents expressed their disdain for the East Winder Bypass, signing its death certificate. Pope said she hadn't seen nearly as many people at an open house until one earlier this year brought 800 residents in Rabun County.

Long said the personal nature of taking land to build a new road draws people

to these meetings in large numbers.

"You're cutting into farms, people's tracts of land," he said. "When you do that, it gets people's attention. It gets people outraged a little more."

Eva Jo Helton, who has lived on Patrick Mill Road for 58 years, said she didn't know much about the East Winder Bypass, but isn't happy to have a West Winder Bypass coming to town.

The route hasn't been finalized, so there's no way to know for certain which way the road will go. But Helton's house is close to the street, and she's afraid she'll lose her front yard if the bypass is approved.

"I wish it wasn't coming," she said. "I'm worried about it. It's got to stop out there right across the road from our house. I wish it would go some other way."

Darragh estimated that 100 tracts of land would be affected by the current proposal. But construction on the project is still several years off, with a tentative start date in 2013. And that's only if everything goes like clockwork.

In addition to resident complaints, a lack of funding, inability to buy right-of-way, a county decision to halt the project or environmental concerns could all mean an end to the bypass. But in a community that has been considering the need for such a road for nearly two decades, the fact that a plan even exists is a reason to hope.

Cale Lindsey, the store manager at 84 Lumber on Bankhead Highway, said he had not heard that the bypass would be near his store, but welcomed the impact it would have on his operations.

"That'd be a good idea, I guess," he said. "It gives us easy access to I-85. We ship a lot of lumber. There are a big trucks coming through here all the time."

Darragh said he knows the project won't eliminate truck traffic through Winder, but he hopes it will keep commercial traffic in the city from competing with people who are just passing through.

The road may even become a new commercial center for Barrow, Long said, though that isn't GDOT's intent. He still believes the city needs an East Winder Bypass, but said anything that can be done to make the drive easier is worth it.

"To me, it would be a terrific improvement," he said. "We've all been through downtown Winder at rush hour. It's a tough city to get through."