Originally created 08/31/02

Lawsuit could delay road work



ATLANTA - Construction of rural roads across the state could be slowed if a judge agrees with opponents of a controversial highway project in Atlanta's northern suburbs.

Opponents of the planned Northern Arc say they support the state's plans to upgrade rural roads across the rest of Georgia, but they are fighting the rural package as a way to halt the Atlanta highway.

But Department of Trans-portation officials say a law-suit filed by the Northern Arc Task Force could delay mill-ions of dollars of road widening work from the north Georgia mountains to the plains of the Southeastern coast.

"For them to try to stop a particular road and affect other projects is ludicrous," said Jimmy Lester of Augusta, who represents the 10th Con-gressional District on the State Transportation Board. "I'm very upset about it."

The challenge, due to be heard in Fulton County Superior Court on Wednesday, chal-lenges legislation steered through the General Assembly by Gov. Roy Barnes last year to speed up completion of the long-delayed Governor's Road Improvement Program (GRIP) and other highway and mass transit projects.

GRIP roads include the Fall Line Freeway linking Augusta and Columbus via Macon, the Savannah River Parkway between Augusta and Savan-nah, U.S. 441, and the Golden Isles Parkway, which runs northwest from the Brunswick area.

The bill created a new agen-cy, the State Road and Tollway Authority, to act as a vehicle for issuing revenue bonds in anticipation of Georgia's fu-ture share of federal highway aid.

But according to the op-ponents, Georgia's constitution prohibits any body that is beyond the control of the Le-gislature from incurring debt that ultimately will be laid at the feet of taxpayers.

None of the $822 million bond issue involved in the lawsuit is earmarked for the proposed Northern Arc, which would connect Interstate 85 in Gwinnett County with I-75 in Bartow County.

But Bob Charles, one of the task force's vice presidents, said the group acted to prevent the state from establishing a bad precedent.

"What this funding scheme does is sidestep the General Assembly," he said. "It allows 22 people, only five of whom were elected, to make decis-ions involving millions of (dol-lars in) bond debt to Georgia."

The task force has hired former state Attorney General Mike Bowers as its lead law-yer.

Mr. Charles said Trans-portation Commissioner Tom Coleman's decision to send a letter to every legislator listing projects in their districts that could be affected by the chal-lenge is a sign that Mr. Bowers has a strong case.

AFFECTED HIGHWAY PROJECTS

According to the state Department of Transportation, widening projects along portions of the following highways in the Augusta area could be delayed by a lawsuit arising from the proposed Northern Arc project in suburban Atlanta:

HIGHWAY........................COUNTIES

Savannah River Parkway.........Richmond, Burke

U.S. 1.........................Jefferson

U.S. 78........................McDuffie