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Salem Road widening stalled in Rockdale

CONYERS - Rockdale County officials said their hands are tied over getting the Salem Road widening project started now that they have learned state transportation officials will not consider the project until after 2014.

Most people agree the road, which is also Ga. Highway 162, needs expanding. The road, which narrows from four lanes at Flat Shoals Road to two lanes just before Fairview/McCalla roads, serves as a primary route to Interstate 20 for motorists coming from west Newton County and east Rockdale County.

The proposed project would widen four miles of the road - two in Rockdale and two in Newton - from Flat Shoals Road in Rockdale to Brown Bridge Road in Newton.

However, lack of money has brought the project to a stop.

The estimated cost of $45 million - $30 for right of way acquisition and $15 million for construction - is more than Rockdale County can bear for one road project.

"Even if we wanted to start work on it right now, we couldn't. The money is simply not there," said Shannon Hebb, manager of the Rockdale County special purpose local option sales tax transportation program.

The county has $1 million available for the Salem Road project from the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, GRTA, but those funds are to be used only for engineering.

In comparison, the current SPLOST has $40 million earmarked for several transportation projects and resurfacing throughout the county.

Newton County announced last year that GDOT agreed to shift $22 million from other state road projects in Newton County to be used for right of way acquisition for its portion of the Salem Road widening.

Kevin Walter, Newton County chief engineer, said he expected to begin right of way acquisition along the corridor in 2010 with construction beginning in 2012 or later. Walter added that Newton County faces the same problem as Rockdale County and has not identified funding for construction.

Rockdale County was told its part of the project has been pushed back to sometime between 2014 and 2020, meaning GDOT will be considering the funding options sometime within that six-year period. If funding is available at that time, then the preliminary planning and design and right of way acquisition can begin, Hebb said.

GDOT spokesman Mark McKinnon said there has never been any state money involved in the Salem Road widening, and the department officially designates it as a long-range project. He said when money is available, GDOT will take action to move the project forward.

"Technically, it's a long-range project because there's no money available," McKinnon said. "In our re-evaluation process of projects, if funding does become available, we will assess the priority of that project with others we have in the state. There's a lot of things that will have to be done, such as planning and right of way acquisition, before we can even get to the construction phase."

Another cog in the wheel has been the disagreement between Rockdale County and GDOT over whether Salem Road should be widened to four lanes or six. County planners and officials have said they preferred a four-lane parkway, which is in keeping with the Salem Road overlay district approved in 2005. State transportation officials, however, have leaned toward widening the highway to six lanes.

Commissioner Jason Hill said he believes a sales tax referendum is the only way for the county to fund the Salem Road widening project, but legislative action is needed first.

He said it would be difficult to get the public to agree to another special sales tax that only included one road project.

"What needs to happen is for the state legislators to come up with a solution for local communities to be able to pay for these large transportation projects," Hill said.

He favored the proposed transportation sales tax, or T-SPLOST, that failed in this year's General Assembly.

Hill pointed to the proposed, non-access bridge over Interstate 20 to connect Salem Gate Road to Dogwood Drive as another big ticket transportation project that Hill said would help relieve traffic flow in the county. Again, he said, the county is having a difficult time finding the funding to build it.

"I think the voters can go for a T-SPLOST, knowing the money will go for those big projects," he said. "I hope, and think it should be, the first thing the General Assembly should work to solve during the next session."

Newton Citizen Staff Reporter Crystal Tatum contributed to this story.

Jay Jones can be reached at jay.jones@rockdalecitizen.com.