Will new talks change plans for Sugarloaf?

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett officials never wanted to give up the idea of an east-west connection for drivers.

So when homeowner protests caused Gov. Sonny Perdue and state transportation officials to drop the controversial Northern Arc plan four years ago, locals decided to strike out on their own, pledging extensions to Sugarloaf Parkway that would create a loop around Lawrenceville and provide easier access between Dacula and Sugar Hill.

But with preparations for the first construction contract under way, a renewed interest from State Transportation Board members has county administrators wondering what will happen to their plans.

"It's certainly something we need to sit down and talk about," Board of Commissioners Chairman Charles Bannister said. "We need to find out how we're impacted, if we're impacted."

Officials still seem to agree that the Northern Arc is never going to happen. The route that was planned decades ago from Interstate 75 in Bartow County to Ga. Highway 316 in Gwinnett began to be covered in development as it sat on planners' shelves.

But transportation officials did buy some land along the path in Gwinnett, leading local officials to continue the pursuit of a stretch from Peachtree Industrial Boulevard to Ga. 316. With the imminent construction of an extension of Sugarloaf Parkway from its current end at Ga. Highway 20 south of Lawrenceville to the old Northern Arc terminus at Ga. 316, the route would complete a loop around the county seat.

"I'm prepared to fight to make sure Sugarloaf goes all the way to Sugar Hill. That's an important part of Gwinnett County's future," Commissioner Kevin Kenerly said. "You could get from Grayson to the Mall of Georgia without going through any traffic lights, probably in 10 minutes. It would relieve all the pressure on the roads now."

While the county has secured $50 million in sales tax funds to build the southern extension, officials were hoping for state and federal support on the northern segment - the part along the former Northern Arc path - especially since the state owns much of the land and would have to pay back the federal government by 2009 unless another plan is adopted. The upper segment, Gwinnett Transportation Director Brian Allen said, could cost $250 million.

"I would hope there'd be no incentive for them to dispose of that right of way without working with us," Allen said. "Our project is more of an internal circulation, but we'd be interested in talking about a regional tie-in."

Bannister said he didn't know if Gwinnett would be any part of the latest east-west connector talks, since officials are considering building north of Lake Lanier.

"I don't know what their plans are. I wish I did," he said, adding he hoped to arrange a meeting next week. "We could stand traffic relief in Gwinnett County. Not knowing where the route is, it's hard to talk about."

Allen said the possibility does bring up questions about the future of the Sugarloaf extension, but it may not mean a change to the plans.

"The question becomes: Can the piece of road we are talking about, can it tie into that roadway?" he said. "I think we'd be open to that, but our purpose is not in that vein."