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Northern Arc dead, but idea has some life

If you peruse some maps of metro Atlanta, you'll likely come across a tiny dotted line marked "Outer Loop (proposed)." Picture Interstate 285 as it encircles Atlanta and then draw a circle 20 or so miles farther out. That 230-mile oval became known as the Outer Loop and was designed to relieve congestion on Atlanta's perimeter highway.

The idea dates back to the 1970s, indicating that even back then people were looking for solutions to Atlanta's clogged arteries. Now, nearly 40 years later, the Outer Loop is nothing more than a dotted line on outdated maps.

Gov. Roy Barnes pushed hard for creation of a portion of the Outer Loop that connected Ga. Highway 316 in Gwinnett County to Interstate 75 in Bartow County known as the Northern Arc. For me, it could have been great.

I often travel back to my Midwest roots, but to get there from here, I must travel south on I-85 and across the top of the perimeter before heading north on I-75. If you think there's a way to skirt Atlanta and travel directly from northeastern suburb to northwestern suburb, you would be wrong.

I used to think that and tried several routes - Ga. highways 20, 53, and various combinations of Ga. 140, U.S. 411 and even way up north to Ga. 52. Scenery improved; travel time didn't.

So when needing to reach I-75 North, I still go down, across and back up instead of simply going over.

In 2002, the Daily Post asked in a survey whether people were for or against the construction of a Northern Arc. Respondents favored the project 2 to 1.

But opposition from those living in its path - not just in Gwinnett but all along the path - killed the project and contributed to Barnes' defeat after one term. Under Gov. Sonny Perdue, the project was quickly dropped from the state's Regional Transportation Plan.

The general consensus is that the Northern Arc project as we once knew it is, as Dickens wrote, dead as a doornail. But all is not lost. There's talk of a new cross-state route that would be built even farther north. While talk is very preliminary, transportation officials have identified a path in the vicinity of Ga. 53 that might, with upgrades, accelerate travel for those going east and west above Atlanta.

Some good did come from the original Outer Loop proposal. The right of way for the old Northern Arc through Gwinnett County is mostly (60 percent) owned by the state and has been kept fairly clear of development thanks to wise rezoning decisions at the county level. (That's not the case in other counties along the proposed path who have opened up the path to development.)

Gwinnett transportation chief Brian Allen said the county plans to use the relatively clear path through Gwinnett to extend Sugarloaf Parkway from Ga. 316 to Peachtree Industrial Boulevard. It won't reach I-75, but it will provide a much-needed cross-county connector. No construction funds are committed, so it will be awhile.

But any roads, cross-state or cross-county, that materialize at this point won't be as efficient as the original Northern Arc of the Outer Loop. So it looks like I'll continue to head south to Atlanta in order to make my way north.

J.K. Murphy is the publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@gwinnettdailypost.com.