Residents had the chance to respond to the Georgia Department of Transportation survey in December and January about three possible routes, which included improving the road along its present route, building a new road to the north or constructing a new road on a southern route. The alternative route north of Highway 20 was the only location to receive a majority of positive responses, with 60 percent, or 760 people, who said they liked the idea, 36 percent, or 463 people, who disliked it and 4 percent who were neutral.
But Robert Chambers, a spokesman for the Highway 20 Coalition, which represents thousands of homes in the area impacted by the project, said residents in the coalition want to “keep 20 on 20.”
“We completely, unanimously oppose the construction of a new roadway. We support improvements to the existing Highway 20,” Chambers said Tuesday. “GDOT is cherry-picking these statistics.”
Cynthia Burney, the Highway 20 project manager since August, said the public survey results are being taken into account, as Department of Transportation officials review the performance, cost, environmental and community impacts for each proposed plan.
“We’re going through the technical analysis of that screening and seeing what those results turn up,” Burney explained. “We want to get down to a reasonable range of alternatives … Then we’re going to do full-blown studies.”
District 1 Commissioner Harry Johnston, who represents the area of the county covering Highway 20, said he’s surprised at the survey results.
“Mostly, what I’ve been hearing people say is they think we should just improve Highway 20’s current path with minimum deviations,” Johnston said. “As a result of that input, it’s the position I have adopted. I still think that’s what makes the most sense, especially when you consider what has to be the much higher cost of an entirely new road and a general lack of funding for state highways.”
While Burney said no firm date has been set for completion of the process to narrow down possible Highway 20 routes, she said GDOT hopes to complete this step within a year and possibly in as little as six months.
Burney said the project “is really important and has the potential to impact a lot of people,” so GDOT wants to take time to get it right.
“I’m going to get it done as soon as I can,” Burney said.
The northern alternate route would begin from Interstate 575 at Riverstone Parkway, stretch east to the intersection of Highways 372 and 369, and end in Cumming where State Route 400 crosses Highway 306.
Chambers said the Highway 20 Coalition consists of about 4,000 households in 14 subdivisions, as well as individuals, who are located in what he called “an area of risk,” which runs about a mile to the north and south of each alternative proposed route.
With thousands of households represented opposition to the construction of a new alternative road to Highway 20, and just 760 survey responses in favor of a north alternate route, Chambers said he doubts if the survey results accurately portray the opinion of the communities that could be impacted by the project.
“Those are responses, not people — much like American Idol. On the website, people could respond and make choices multiple times,” Chambers said, adding there was “heavy attendance” at public input meetings from those who live south of Highway 20. “I would suspect that the 760 people who like the northern freeway were predominantly people from south of Highway 20.”
Burney said the response to this project has been one of the best calls for input she’s seen at GDOT.
“We always go to the public with our projects,” she said. “Most of the time, we don’t get that many people who respond. The fact that we got that many is good. Are there more voices to be heard? I’m sure there are.”
In total, GDOT received 1,997 comments about the project, most from its online feedback forum, and some in the form of paper comments, letters and emails.
The second possible location for the project would call for widening of the existing roadway, and residents who responded to the survey were split on the idea, with 44 percent who said they liked the idea, 52 percent who said they disliked the idea and 4 percent who were neutral.
The option to widen the existing roadway includes multiple bypass options for five different areas along Highway 20, including possible deviations from the existing road in Buffington, Macedonia, Lathemtown, Ducktown and Cumming.
Another alternative route could run south of the existing Highway 20 and received the most negative response, with 71 percent (905 people) saying they disliked the idea, 28 percent (349 people) saying they liked it and 1 percent (11 people) remaining neutral.
The southern alternative route would begin just above Highway 140, or Hickory Flat Highway, at Interstate 575, going northeast through Macedonia, before heading southeast to State Route 400, between Highway 141 and the existing Highway 20.
Chambers said it’s important GDOT listens to residents in the areas that could be impacted by the overhaul.
“We are concerned that they do not listen to the local citizens, that this is a process driven by people from outside the community. We think that’s wrong,” he said. “We think that the wishes of the local population should be weighted very, very highly.”
Burney said GDOT takes the public’s input seriously, and once the proposed route choices are narrowed down, GDOT will go back to the public for more input.
“They live out there; they know the area better than we do,” she said.
More than a decade ago, the Northern Arc, a road project that had been set to stretch from Canton to Cumming, dissolved after public outcry.
Most opponents of the Northern Arc wanted the project nixed because the proposed roadway would have carved a path through established neighborhoods and communities, and some opponents didn’t want the development they feared would accompany the new road, Johnston said.
“Others opposed it because they would’ve been directly impacted by either having the road take their property or come too close to their property,” the District 1 commissioner explained.
While the north alternate route of the Highway 20 project is similar to one of multiple possible pathways of the failed Northern Arc, Johnston said preliminary maps of the proposed north alternative road show a “slightly less” intrusive path.
“This one avoids Hawks Ridge,” he said. “It does not appear to go right through any major development. Now, it does come fairly close; it goes just south of Governor’s Preserve.”
But Johnston warned the conceptual maps are not detailed, nor final.
“They’ve just drawn a conceptual path, and we’ll have to see exactly how many — and who — it affects,” he said.
Johnston, in a statement made in March, said he supported “improving Highway 20 within the existing route wherever possible, and minimizing any necessary deviations.”
To date, more than a dozen elected officials in Cherokee and Forsyth have either signed pledges or stated their support for improving the existing Highway 20 roadway, instead of constructing a new alternative road to the north or south, based on Highway 20 Coalition documents.
From Cherokee, some officials who pledged support include Commission Chairman Buzz Ahrens, state Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta), and candidates for the House District 22 seat Meagan Biello and Wes Cantrell.
“We certainly hope that GDOT does not ignore the wishes of these elected officials,” Chambers said.
Chambers said the coalition thinks GDOT “should cancel this project and start over,” using new statistics on wrecks and traffic, since additional passing and turning lanes were completed along the highway last year.
“We think the next best step would be to stop the project until they do a better job of determining the need,” Chambers said. “The data that they used for the needs is grossly flawed.”
The goal of the project is to help relieve congestion, improve mobility and reduce wrecks on Highway 20, and to prepare for a possible doubling of traffic in some places by 2040, GDOT documents show.
Construction is not expected to begin until 2019 at the earliest, initial reports about the project showed.