LAWRENCEVILLE -- The promise was made more than a decade ago -- Ga. Highway 20 will be widened to four lanes from one end of Gwinnett to another, transportation leaders vowed.
But after years of shuffling dollars and changes in priorities, drivers in Sugar Hill are still waiting for some relief from the traffic nightmare that begins when four lanes of traffic dump down to two through the city.
The future looked promising, with officials working for months to buy the land needed for the widening and construction finally appearing as a light at the end of the tunnel.
Though metro Atlantans voted down a regional transportation tax slated to fill an $8 billion list of projects throughout the region in the next 10 years, the project is still on track for construction in two years.
"That money is already there and planned," said Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Teri Pope, adding that the $8 million line item in the T-SPLOST project list would have allowed the state to free up a portion of the construction costs for something else.
But unlike other projects on the $6 billion regional list which would have waited on funding for decades, the state still has plans to move the $30 million long-awaited road project through, along with a $10 million project to widen the bridge over the Chattahoochee River.
Days after the vote, though, it appears the widening could be one of the last major Gwinnett projects to bear funding without some major "reprioritizing" promised by Gov. Nathan Deal.
In that shuffle, questions abound about the survival of some of Gwinnett's biggest endeavors -- another extension to Sugarloaf Parkway to create a loop around Lawrenceville, a fix to the traffic light situation on Ga. Highway 316, which causes wrecks in addition to traffic, a redesign of Snellville's busy U.S. Highway 78/Ga. Highway 124 intersection. How will those projects sort out?
It could all be up to another tax vote, this one slated for November of 2013. Gwinnett is due for its one-penny tax to expire, and Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said the load could be road heavy to make up for the money officials had hoped for from the regional tax.
Political science professor Charles Bullock said the T-SPLOST defeat will not necessarily translate into trouble for the local tax proposals, which often have an easier time because people can see the impact more directly.
But Debbie Dooley, a Dacula woman who helped lead a group of organizations campaign for the regional tax's defeat, said she sees the potential for another "no" vote in Gwinnett.
"People are awake and paying attention. I don't think it will see the easy time it has in the past," she said. "We don't trust our elected officials. ... I think it absolutely will have repercussions for the SPLOST next year."PoliticsThey say politics can make strange bedfellows, and never was it more clear in Atlanta than in the final weeks of T-SPLOST campaigning.
Gov. Nathan Deal, a staunch Republican, shared a press conference with Democratic Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and business alliances forged over the $8 million campaign.
On the other side, Atlanta's tea party conservatives joined with liberals from the Sierra Club and the DeKalb NAACP to canvas the community to vote no.
And after trying it out, both sides are saying one of the benefits of the work was building the relationships across party lines.
"Our coalition worked," Dooley said, adding that the group has been working to find common ground on other issues moving forward. "We may disagree on the choice for president but ... we are going to focus on areas we agree on. .. We were a force to be reckoned with."
On the other side, Gwinnett Chamber President Jim Maran said the T-SPLOST result was disappointing, but being able to work together with business leaders could bode well in the end.
"We're so pleased with the collaboration demonstrated by business and community leadership, leading up to this vote," he said. "It sets a wonderful tone for working together in the future."
While Dooley is quick to point to the win not as a tea party victory, but as a "victory of the people," Bullock said the David vs. Goliath triumph is likely to bring more respect for the grassroots group.
"It shows their power; It also will be perceived that it shows their power," he said. "(Leaders) will give the tea party wider berth."
In fact, while some groups have said leaders should retool the project list, fix some mistakes and consider another T-SPLOST vote in two years, Gov. Deal quickly let it be known that wasn't in his plans, since the voters rejected the tax notion.
Instead, he called last week for an immediate "reprioritizing" of projects based on the current means.
He also rejected suggestions, like Dooley's idea of shifting 1 percent of the gas tax, which currently goes to the state's general fund, to transportation, saying he has no intention of "robbing Peter to pay Paul."Plan BSo that leaves us with the "Plan B" that officials debated before the vote.
Bullock said he doesn't expect the Legislature to move quickly, after such a big anti-tax demonstration.
And Deal isn't likely to renege on the newly renewed promise to take down the Ga. 400 tolls, even without the tax funding for the needed $600 million interchange reconstruction at I-285.
With fewer federal dollars and little hope for more in state funds, county officials said they would reevaluate the nearly $900 million in transportation projects that made the T-SPLOST funding list.
Gwinnett spokesman Joe Sorenson said Nash has said all of the projects are important and she would find a way to fund them, although Nash is out of the country on an economic development trip and unavailable to comment on specific projects.
Six years ago, Gwinnett leaders found enough importance in the first phase of the Sugarloaf Parkway extension to shuffle $36 million in the county sales tax program to fund it without waiting for federal dollars. Now, the new roadway is nearly complete, connecting Ga. 20 south of Lawrenceville to Ga. 316 south of Dacula.
But to take the route all the way to Peachtree Industrial Boulevard in Sugar Hill, completing the loop, would require nearly $300 million -- more than the proceeds of a local 1 percent sales tax for two years.
After the economic climate caused a shift downward, the current sales tax is expected to collect $688 million over five years, but the money is not just divided among road projects. It also goes toward police and fire stations, libraries, parks and city projects.
Even if more money is given to transportation the next time around, as Dooley pointed out, the voters still have to approve an extension.
And that, we have learned, is no longer a given.