DULUTH - Surgery began Monday on one of the biggest traffic blockages in the state.
Gov. Sonny Perdue and other state, local and federal officials broke ground on the $147 million reconstruction of the interchange of Interstate 85 and Ga. Highway 316, the most expensive single road project in state history.
Perdue described Georgia's highways as a circulatory system with Spaghetti Junction as the heart of metro Atlanta traffic.
"You have to have blood flowing to the heart, and we've detected a blockage, so we have to do some surgery," said Perdue, a veterinarian by training.
"I will not accept the fact we will allow traffic to choke this community. We're rejecting that, and we're acting on it."
While the actual construction is just beginning, officials have worked for decades to revamp the interchange, which steers traffic from Ga. 316 westbound into the fast lane of
I-85 southbound on the left side of the road.
The reconstruction includes two new "fly-over" bridges to direct Ga. 316 westbound traffic to the right side of I-85 or to Pleasant Hill Road. The existing merge point will become a High-Occupancy Vehicle only merge, and the HOV lanes will be extended north on I-85 and east on Ga. 316. New collector-distributor lanes will tie into the existing system, connecting traffic from Pleasant Hill Road to Old Peachtree Road.
"I'm sure many of the motorists are going to be annoyed for a little while," Gwinnett County Chairman Charles Bannister said. "But by the end we'll have achieved our goal."
Most of the work during the three-year construction process will occur on nights and weekends, officials promised. And Perdue, a former quarterback at the University of Georgia, added that the route to Athens won't be disturbed on game days.
With 267,000 vehicles traveling through the intersection every day, the interchange carries a lot more traffic than when it first opened on Nov. 24, 1962.
So officials worked for decades, redesigning the blueprints four times, lobbying for money, buying the land and ensuring the project is environmentally sound.
Former Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Wayne Shackelford said the idea even came up while he worked as Gwinnett's county administrator in the 1970s. Former county commission chairs Lillian Webb and Wayne Hill were on hand Monday to celebrate the project they had a hand in creating.
"It's a shame it takes that long, but with projects of this magnitude it takes quite a while," Webb said. "Maybe I'll still be alive to use it" when construction wraps up in three years.
To speed up the work, Gwinnett County chipped in about $6 million to complete the design and buy some of the land required for the project.
Then, it was included in Perdue's Fast Forward program.
"We know of no bigger need than right here at 316 and 85. It's been a while coming, and this is the harvest of that," Perdue said.
"This is not the end," U.S. Rep. John Linder, R-Duluth, said, quoting Winston Churchill. "It is not even the beginning of the end. But it may be the end of the beginning."