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Smooth Ride
Three-year project makes major impact on traffic congestion

DULUTH - That first day, as drivers began to whiz along flyover bridges connecting Ga. Highway 316 West to Interstate 85 South and Pleasant Hill Road, Teri Pope's eyes began to tear.

In October 2007, when the bridges opened, the Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman spent the morning rush hour with a traffic reporter in a helicopter, watching traffic move the way engineers had dreamed.

"It's made the merge a lot smoother," Pope said of the $150 million construction project to transform the I-85/Ga. 316 interchange, which began in January 2006.

After three years of lane closures, 209,459 tons of concrete, 720 million pounds of asphalt and 430,000 pounds of reinforcing steel, construction was officially complete on New Year's Eve 2008. And Pope said officials could not be happier with the results.

"You can tell what good we did because you can go," Pope said. "Every piece you opened, you could see immediate results."

According to a speed study conducted on I-85 northbound before the project and since its completion, traffic improved all the way from Interstate 285 to Steve Reynolds Boulevard.

At Steve Reynolds, the average rush hour speed increased by 64 percent, from 34.3 miles per hour to 56.1 miles per hour. The lowest speed recorded at Beaver Ruin Road before the project was 27.1 miles per hour, but it improved to 51.8 miles per hour as a low after the work.

Even though the volume of cars actually increased by 8 percent after the work, the project shaved an hour off the evening rush hour, with speeds recovering to 60 miles per hour between 5:45 and 6:15 p.m. instead of the previous 6:45 to 7:15 p.m.

The project finished early but came in slightly over budget, Pope said, because transportation officials added an auxiliary lane into the project.

Over the years, complaints came - people got caught in construction, they were frustrated with the speed limit, annoyed by the blasting.

But officials did all they could to ease the pain, canceling lane closures on holiday weekends or when University of Georgia football games would snarl traffic. According to the contract with C.W. Matthews Inc. and APAC Southeast, no lane closures could be scheduled between Thanksgiving and Christmas, giving shoppers a break to get to three Gwinnett malls.

But Pope said even the breaks would bring complaints, with people wondering why workers weren't out when the weather was clear.

Through the project, the highways were widened, access was easier, collector-distributor lanes and high-occupancy vehicle lanes were added and those big flyover bridges were created.

"It was pretty significant," Pope said of the project's impact and importance. And she'll never forget the view from that helicopter of free-flowing traffic. "It was so exciting to see that happen."