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Sugarloaf extension funds found

LAWRENCEVILLE - A shuffling of county sales tax money could speed up a major traffic relief project - an extension of Sugarloaf Parkway to Ga. Highway 316.

Officials found an extra $36 million to start construction, possibly by the end of next year, on what could be the largest county-funded road project in Gwinnett history.

While the Board of Commissioners must consider the plan on Tuesday, officials said momentum has been building for the extension from Ga. Highway 20 since a citizens committee earmarked about $3 million for the project last year.

That same committee met Friday to free up $36 million more for the project, which is expected to loosen traffic south of the county seat.

The first phase of the extension could cost up to $100 million, and Transportation Director Brian Allen said the county is pledging to fund almost the entire project because working with the federal government could double or triple the time frame for building it.

Allen said he could come back to the citizens committee asking for more money in the future. He would also pursue state grants.

Allen said a second phase, which would continue to Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and create a loop around Lawrenceville, would need federal support because it could cost up to $250 million. Some federal money - about $7.4 million - has already been earmarked to begin preserving the path from development, along with about $5 million in county sales tax funds. But otherwise, time isn't an issue in that phase.

"This board has been very deliberate in saying we want to move projects," Allen said. "You hear the citizens say traffic is one of the biggest issues in the county. This is one we think we can move very quickly."

Joy Dinehart, who lives in the Hamilton Mill community, said she considered the move a proactive approach to transportation at a time when many people wonder why roads aren't repaired before they get clogged.

"What we do is try to keep traffic moving, and this needs to be done," she said. "This is trying to think ahead to move more people."

Proposed cuts

To find the money, the DOT recommended deleting several projects that were no longer necessary from former sales tax plans, upgrading some roads with an in-house crew instead of contracting with another company, and looking for federal funds for two projects.

Savings from those means will give the county about $18.2 million to buy land for the entire first phase.

Money for construction of the route from Ga. 20 to New Hope Road - the first interchange in the design - was freed up by moving $17.6 million dedicated to school safety improvements to "tier II," or a second priority level.

Officials said the funding for schools slated to open in 2007 and 2008 remains intact. Finance officials are expecting more money to come from the tax than was previously anticipated, which should cover the "tier II" projects.

School administration officials did not comment by press time.

"This doesn't answer all of our Sugarloaf phase one questions, but it does what we need for the next couple of years," Allen said.

Five Forks widening

The idea that came under the most scrutiny by the citizen panel Friday was taking a proposed widening of Five Forks-Trickum Road out of the sales tax program.

Allen said the county was not giving up on the project, but instead he believed the project was an ideal candidate for federal funding.

Emory Morsberger, a businessman who helped found the U.S. Highway 78 Community Improvement District, pushed last year for improvements to Five Forks because of an expected traffic surge when construction begins to add a median to U.S. 78.

"Aren't you worried about postponing something that already has backups now?" said Morsberger, a member of the committee. "This piece has a huge amount of development."

But Allen said the widening from Oak Road to Killian Hill Road may not be delayed at all by federal participation. It is not in the county's schedule for several years and could achieve federal approval in that time.

If not, he said, he would come back to the board to find more money.

"The project definitely needs to be done," he said. "In no way, shape or form are we saying this project shouldn't be done or slowed down, but there is a time frame that's already in place."