News - The road goes on forever
County leaders say they are poised to untie Johnson Ferry knot
By 6:15, the first lines of cars begin stacking up at the traffic light at Johnson Ferry and Abernathy roads. By 7 a.m., traffic is bumper-to-bumper as Cobb commuters who had raced south in three broad lanes are funneled into two lanes, then only one, where they share space with school buses making morning pickups.
For most of the 45,000 commuters passing through here during the morning and afternoon rush hour, the inch-by-inch crawl seems glacial. So has the pace of progress for what is one of the worst — and, at two decades, one of the most long-standing — bottlenecks in metro Atlanta.
Now, though, the top brass in Fulton and Cobb counties insist the years of rancor are over. They claim it will be just a little while longer before they hammer together a secret deal that will allow the long-awaited $35 million road-widening project to finally get underway, so it can be finished by 2005.
The one sticking point, of course, is money. Fulton doesn't have any. Not for major transportation projects like this, anyway. Although Fulton boasts the largest tax base of any county in Georgia, it has been squeaking by on a yearly road budget of $10 million; for years, a myriad of social programs and new senior centers took fiscal precedence over repaving projects and traffic planning.
So in January, when Fulton County's annual transportation wish list again omitted any request for funds to widen Abernathy Road, it seemed in keeping with the contentious history of the project.
State Department of Transportation officials say the omission will set the road-widening end date back to at least 2006 and suggest it would take an act of the state Legislature to get it back on track. The project is expected to take four years to complete once initial design work begins.
Nayef Haddad, Fulton's jovial transportation czar, says he made the call not to submit the project because the county simply doesn't have the $8 million to $10 million in required matching funds to trigger state and federal grants.
The county leadership — at least the three north Fulton commissioners — is committed to seeing the project through, he says, but it wants to use someone else's money. The spirit is willing, but the wallet is weak.
By contrast, Cobb was virtually printing its own road-building money during the heyday of its 1-cent local sales tax, spending a mind-boggling $100 million a year throughout most of the '90s on a long list of paving projects.
A decade ago, when Cobb widened Johnson Ferry from Shallowford Road south seven miles to the river's edge, ending in a six-lane thoroughfare that squeezed onto the four-lane bridge, the two counties were not speaking civilly. Fulton leaders and residents resented Cobb's efforts to force their hand in helping turn the road into a super-corridor that would benefit primarily Cobb commuters.
By 1996, when the hostility had reached a fever pitch, then-DOT Commissioner Wayne Shackleford stepped in and had the Johnson Ferry/Abernathy corridor declared a temporary state route, with the implication that Fulton would lose control over the roads if an agreement wasn't reached. Since then, Fulton has been more cooperative in seeking a solution to the gridlock.
Cobb Commission Chairman Bill Byrne even offered to divert state funds from his own county to cover Fulton's portion of the construction tab, but all new road projects were put on hold when metro Atlanta fell under a federally-imposed road-building moratorium in 1997.
Meanwhile, Cobb's big-spending days are over. Voters have twice rejected an extension of the 1-cent sales tax and the county's roads budget has dwindled to just $15 million a year.
But Byrne says he still has some tricks up his sleeve. He is working with Fulton Chairman Mike Kenn to find up to $10 million in state or federal money to pay for Fulton's 20-percent local share of the project, he says, and expects to meet the project's scheduled completion date of 2005. Byrne refuses to offer details about the behind-the-scenes deal-making he says are in the works.
Byrne, a Republican stalwart who says he is "90 percent" ready to declare his candidacy in the 2002 governor's race, is likely feeling pressure to deliver a workable Johnson Ferry resolution to many of the same north Fulton residents — mostly GOP voters — who had vilified him during the height of the two counties' squabbling over the road-widening.
In the past, Byrne might have taken Fulton's decision not to submit the project to the ARC as a slight against Cobb, but these days, he's more circumspect.
"They didn't submit the proposal because they don't have the money to pay for it," Byrne says matter-of-factly. When the money comes through from unnamed sources, he says, the project can still be fast-tracked for 2005.
Area homeowners and Sandy Springs activists, however, have heard many such assurances over the years and developed thick skins. Bill Cleveland, who has spent the last five years awaiting a government buyout of his Abernathy Road home, believes Fulton has effectively let his neighborhood remain in traffic-choked limbo because it hasn't found the money to fix the problem. "Fulton County doesn't fight for its residents the way Cobb does," he says wearily.
Actually, a central hurdle for the project involves demands that Fulton is making on behalf of the neighborhood. Under plans developed by Fulton and agreed to by Cobb, Johnson Ferry Road would be equipped with a median from the river east to Abernathy Road and the intersection there would be reconfigured to divert east-bound traffic onto Abernathy. Heading east, Abernathy would be widened from two to four lanes to Ga. 400, flanked by park land that would require the removal of 42 homes on both sides of the road.
The state has the ability to fund the entire project now, but in a stripped-down version. Because of Johnson Ferry's status as a temporary state route, state money can be used toward drawing up designs and buying right-of-way acquisition — typically the responsibility of local government.
Trouble is, the DOT can't use state gas tax money to buy entire properties if using a strip of land along one side of Abernathy will suffice, meaning those funds can't be used to create the proposed parkway. The DOT has only half as much budgeted for right-of-way along Abernathy — $9 million — as it does for Johnson Ferry, where no homes are expected to be taken.
In order to make good on its long-standing promise of a total buyout of properties along Abernathy Road, Fulton needs to come up with the price difference between that scenario and the state's bare-bones approach. What that figure is is anybody's guess, as no appraisals have been done for years.
"We haven't touched this for so long, many of the estimates have probably changed," says Frank Danchetz, the DOT's chief engineer, who asserts that the first step for the project is to get in line for funding through inclusion in the ARC's Transportation Improvement Plan — the deadline recently missed by Fulton.
"If it's not in the TIP, we can't fund it," says Danchetz, who says he's seen little indication of movement on the project. The most likely way to earmark state money to underwrite Fulton's full-scale parkway plan, he says, would be to essentially include it in a funding bill in the state Legislature.
But Fulton Commissioner Tom Lowe, who has represented the area for 27 years, cagily suggests that progress will be seen in the next three or four months and that the county is close to securing the $1 million — from its own coffers or elsewhere — needed to develop a workable design for the road-widening.
"It's not dead by a long shot," he says.