FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — Forsyth County is facing pushback from its partners in a multi-million-dollar project to widen McGinnis Ferry Road.
Both Johns Creek and Alpharetta have signed on to help fund the project, but they are balking at terms of an agreement with Forsyth County that, among other things, calls for the cities to commit more money than they originally planned.
McGinnis Ferry Road runs along the southern border of Forsyth County, with Alpharetta and Johns Creek hugging parts of the highway to the south. Even with two lanes in some spots, it serves as a major east-west commuter route from Gwinnett County west through North Fulton. It is destined to become even more popular due to the state’s plan to add an interchange at Ga. 400.
The widening project covers a little over 4.5 miles from Sargent Road in Johns Creek to Union Hill Road in Alpharetta.
Plans call for widening the route to two lanes in each direction with a 20-foot-wide raised median, shoulders and sidewalks on each side.
Both cities had set aside funding from the 2016 transportation sales tax and other local sources to help with the project. But neither city has committed anywhere near the $9 million Forsyth County is asking from each. Forsyth committed $18 million back in 2015 — about half the bill — based on the project’s original estimated cost of around $35 million. The county is now placing a price tag of $60 million on the project and is anticipating some help from the state, possibly as much as $10 million.
Cities asked to pay more
So far, Alpharetta has upped its commitment to $6 million for its share, although that figure has not been formally approved by the City Council. The city had originally set $4 million as its portion.
Johns Creek has committed $5.5 million, all from transportation sales tax dollars.
Alpharetta wants nothing to do with the Forsyth proposal as it stands now.
“It’s not going anywhere,” Alpharetta Mayor Jim Gilvin said.
Alpharetta City Administrator Bob Regus said everyone was probably surprised by the increase in cost, including Forsyth County. But, he added, any time there are three separate entities sharing costs and obligations on a road project, things get complex.
“It just takes time to establish a relationship with our counterparts and dig into the issues we need to dig into,” Regus said, adding that Forsyth County is a much bigger government than either of its two municipal partners. “I don’t want to speak for Johns Creek, but I think we both struggle with the increased ask.”
Another element in the current Forsyth proposal would allow the county to acquire or condemn property in Johns Creek and Alpharetta at the cities’ cost if the cities’ delay in acquiring the property would cause the project to fall off schedule.
“When we do respond to Forsyth, we want to be in charge of acquiring our right of way,” Regus said. “We want to maintain our relationship with our citizens, even if it leads to eminent domain of their property. The city will not give that away.”
Alpharetta has another meeting scheduled with Forsyth officials later this month.
For its part, Johns Creek has submitted a counter proposal back to Forsyth County. It calls for breaking the project into phases.
The city’s preferred plan would be to widen a 0.7- mile section, roughly one-third of the total run through Johns Creek, from Sargent Road to Seven Oaks Parkway. With a total estimated cost of $5.1 million, Johns Creek would pony up about $1.2 million. The Johns Creek proposal does not address who pays for utility relocation and stream mitigation along the route for an estimated cost of $1.6 million.
Forsyth County officials say they would need to iron out how much the county would be on the hook for regarding utilities and stream mitigation. They also say they are not anxious to see the project broken up into phases.
Forsyth wants to move forward
Speaking at a recent County Commission meeting, Forsyth County Attorney Ken Jarrard said the county wants to move beyond the design and planning process and get the ball rolling.
“If you look at what Johns Creek is proposing, it’s not embracing the whole project,” Jarrard said. “We would like a renewed commitment to the entirety of the project, not just commit to a phase of the project. We want them to embrace the entirety of it.”
Jarrard also warned county commissioners that allowing Johns Creek to segment the project might encourage the same approach from Alpharetta.
Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said that skyrocketing costs for road projects has been a fact of life for years. There is nothing wrong with asking each city to pay a fair share of those costs, she said.
County Manager Eric Johnson urged caution.
“I’ve been here two years, and when I started, there was no commitment by either jurisdiction for $9 million,” he said. “Starting with a $9 million assumption and going north with that is not going to necessarily get us any place.”
Johnson recommended the county look to the Atlanta Regional Commission or GDOT to advise the jurisdictions about their commitment.
“If they want to take either city to the woodshed, that’s not really something that we need to witness,” Johnson said.
In the long run, he said, if all jurisdictions move to fund acquisition of all the right of way, chances increase that the state may step up with more help. If the county keeps asking for $9 million from each city, the project will go nowhere, he said.
Commissioners have directed the county attorney to continue fashioning an agreement they can present to Johns Creek and Alpharetta to get work underway as soon as possible.