The busy intersection of Highway 20 and Union Hill Road.
The Georgia Department of Transportation is asking for public input on what changes could be made to Highway 20 between Canton and Cumming to reduce traffic and commute times and increase safety.
Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Transportation
CANTON — The stretch of Highway 20 between Canton and Cumming has long been a source of frustration for Cherokee and Forsyth county drivers with its slow, lumbering commutes and accident-prone intersections. And the conditions are only expected to get worse, with the Georgia Department of Transportation projecting that by 2040, traffic will have more than doubled in some spots on the 25-mile stretch of road between Interstate 575 in Canton to Highway 400 in Cumming. This has spurred GDOT to begin plans for major changes to the road, Mohamed Arafa, a communications officer for GDOT said, and unlike in the past, this time residents will be able to help drive the process. These changes may include widening the road, intersection reworkings and access changes, though no solid plans exist for project yet, Arafa said. With countless factors at play, and causing problems on Highway 20, Arafa said even GDOT can’t be aware of all the issues, so they’re asking for the public to help in identifying them. Two public meetings have been scheduled for residents to voice their concerns about the road, one in Cherokee County and one in Forsyth County. For those unable to attend the two hearings later this month, starting Monday, GDOT will be setting up shop at offices and events around Cherokee and Forsyth. They’ll be equipped with iPads for residents to complete an online survey to share their opinions and experiences on this portion of Highway 20, Arafa said. In preparation for this round of public hearings, GDOT and several partners have been working to identify what issues they could discuss over the course of the past year, and have gathered traffic and environmental data, said Karyn Matthews, a project manager with GDOT. Changes ahead Planning for changes to this stretch of Highway 20 originally began in 2008, with three separate environmental studies. Arafa said the 25-mile project was split into three portions for funding purposes. But the Federal Highway Administration recommended the three studies be combined into one and that GDOT produce an Environmental Impact Statement, which Matthews said is “the highest level of environmental documentation” that can be required in such a project. Matthews said having to produce the EIS will make the process longer than usual. “We’re looking at about a five-year environmental study,” she said. After the EIS is complete, Matthews said they will begin to acquire the land necessary for the construction and will be several more years away from completion. “If everything falls in line, we’re looking at about a 10-year process (to completion),” she said. Slow work ahead Matthews said the lengthy time-frame for construction can be attributed to all the hoops GDOT has to jump through before a project can even begin. As an example of the regulations slowing down road construction undertakings, Matthews said another project also on Highway 20, in front of Canton Marketplace, has begun to drag, because of an occurrence that seemingly has little to do with road work in Canton. The process was slowed when an unlikely visitor flew into the state of Georgia’s ecosystem. “We were getting close to having an environmental document we were ready to submit to the feds for review and, a bat (from Indiana), who resides in Tennessee, came to Georgia,” she said. “So now, Georgia has to survey for Indiana bats.” Arafa seconded Matthews’ sentiment. “There is a lot more to a road project than just asphalt and concrete,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that we have to do. People complain ‘Oh, it’s taking you too long,’ or ‘why 10 years?’“ But Arafa said the years often begin to drag on for such projects because of the numerous requirements GDOT must meet to receive funding from the federal government, which typically pays 80 percent of the bill on a project of this scope. A rich history In addition to environmental and traffic studies conducted in the past year for the changes to Highway 20, GDOT has also been working on studies relating to the potential impact of the construction to the historical aspects of the area, said Scott Gero, associate vice president of AECOM, a consulting firm working with GDOT. Besides the numerous in-and-out convenience stores and chain retailers that sit along the roadside, Highway 20 is in many areas lined with unassuming landmarks in the form of towering ancient homes and churches and age-rich cemeteries with tales of Cherokee and Forsyth counties buried beneath. Gero said those involved in the project hope to work around this history as best they can and have been canvassing 1,000 feet on each side of the road, asking residents what historic landmarks can be found there. Historic landmarks considered in their studies are those 50 years old or older, Gero said, though landmarks 45 years old are also being taken into account since they will reach 50 years old by the time the construction is completed. Asking for help Gero said these studies are only a small part of what they hope will be a project driven by public input. “Now, what we need before we can start developing ideas for solutions is to get input from the locals,” Gero said. “What do they envision, what are the characteristics they associate with the corridor, what are their concerns?” GDOT will hear public input on the potential changes at meetings this month. Typically, in the public hearing portion of planning for such construction, GDOT brings in some sort of plans for the public to review, Matthews said. But since no plans exist for the Highway 20 project, preliminary public hearings will be different. “There will be places for everybody to write, comment and take surveys,” Matthews said. “We’re really starting this fresh and letting the public drive the process this time.” Residents can also weigh in online by filling out GDOT’s survey at www.sr20.metroquest.com.