Some Tunnel Hill residents say tractor-trailers coming through their neighborhood have left deep ruts on the side of Varnell Road and torn up their yards.
"I can't mow this part (of the yard)," said David Stevenson. "I have to get out here with a weed eater."
The trucks are coming through the neighborhood because Tunnel Hill Church Street and Varnell Road run concurrent with State Route 201.
State Route 201 starts at an intersection with State Route 136 and runs about 12 miles east through the Mount Vernon community and Rocky Face before intersecting with U.S. Highway 41/U.S. Highway 76/State Route 3. The four highways then run concurrent north to Tunnel Hill.
In Tunnel Hill, the other three highways continue north, but 201 turns right onto Tunnel Hill Church Street, then turns left onto Varnell Road and continues north about a mile before making a hairpin turn east. It then runs past Northwest Whitfield High School, New Hope Elementary School and New Hope Middle School, ending at an intersection with State Route 2.
As 201 goes through Tunnel Hill, it passes through several residential neighborhoods and past three cemeteries and two churches.
"When they built 201 in the 1960s or maybe early 1970s, they probably didn't envision the amount of traffic that would be coming through today," said Tunnel Hill City Administrator Blake Griffin. "But in retrospect, it should not have been built where it is now."
Whitfield County Engineer Kent Benson said 3,600 vehicles travel that stretch of 201 each day.
On one recent afternoon, a reporter spent about 30 minutes at the intersection of Tunnel Hill Church Street and Varnell Road and saw about a dozen tractor-trailers turning from Tunnel Hill Church Street onto Varnell Road and another half-dozen turning from Varnell Road onto Tunnel Hill Church Street.
Bradley Putnam, who lives nearby, watched as one truck turning onto Tunnel Hill Church Street waited until all the traffic on that road was clear before turning.
"He made a wide turn," Putnam said. "They don't always do that."
Putnam said one truck took out a rose bush of the home at the corner of the two streets. He said several have hit a pair of large rocks in the home's yard, with one truck dragging one of the rocks underneath its trailer all the way to U.S. Highway 41 before the rock dislodged.
The Whitfield County Board of Commissioners recently approved several items that will advance a plan to move 201 out of those neighborhoods. That plan, which will be funded by $6.85 million from the 2015 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), will build a new stretch of road about 1.2 miles north of Tunnel Hill Church Street that will connect 201 to U.S. Highway 41.
"That's the way 201 should have been built originally," Griffin said.
Commissioners voted 4-0 to:
• Approve a $55,900 supplemental design contract with American Consulting Professionals of Dalton for the State Route 201 project. The county already had a $306,500 contract with the company to design the project and perform environmental services. Officials say that during the course of the environmental, design and right-of-way acquisition phases of the project, they identified other work that needs to be done, including coordination with the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) since GDOT will have to accept the new road as a state highway.
"Impacts to these areas require permits from Georgia EPD (Environmental Protection Division) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and we will have permits from both on this project," Benson said. "Preparation of those permit applications and calculation of stream and wetland mitigation credits are also included. We will also be required by the Corps of Engineers to do a cultural resources study within 100 meters of any stream or wetland area impacted by the project before they will issue the permit we need from them. We were just notified (recently) about that required study."
• Approve a $236,526 contract with Georgia Power to relocate power lines and poles along the right-of-way of State Route 201.
• Accept $350,000 in state local maintenance and improvement grant funds for the State Route 201 project.
Benson said he expects to advertise the project for bids in late July. Construction should start in late September, he said.
"(That) section will be 4,650 feet long (0.88 miles)," he said. "It will be two lanes with turn lanes at all intersections. It will not have sidewalks or bike lanes. The new road will stretch from the intersection of SR 201 and Lee’s Chapel Road on the east to a point about 800 feet north of Ernest Drive on the west, on U.S. 41."
Benson said a left turn lane for the new intersection north of Ernest Drive will be added on U.S. Highway 41. He said he anticipates the project will be completed by the end of 2020.
"The construction contract will probably be 15 months long, but that has not been decided yet," he said. "There is a balance between shortening the contract and driving up bid prices, but obviously we want to get the road finished and open as soon as possible."
That will be more than four years after the 2015 SPLOST was approved, but Benson said that's not long for this sort of project.
"We started design in September of 2015. This is a (pay-as-you-go) project that has over 80 percent of its expense in the final 15 months, which is the construction phase, so it makes sense to wait until the tax is collected to start construction. In the meantime, we performed geotechnical studies of the ridge the road must cut through, explored four different alternatives for the route, surveyed the route, performed environmental studies, created a preliminary design for GDOT's review since this connects two state routes, and addressed comments from GDOT’s review to create a 95% final design with right-of-way plans."
After that plan was developed, he said, the county began acquiring the right-of-way.
"We had to buy 24 separate pieces of right-of-way from 24 different owners," he said. "Each parcel was appraised, and an offer was developed after negotiations with property owners. No use of eminent domain was needed on this project. The right-of-way acquisition (ROW) process did not produce any significant changes to the design. Once all the ROW was obtained, we were able to submit applications for our permits from the EPD and the Corps of Engineers. We are also applying to GDOT for an encroachment permit to work on State Route 201 and U.S. 41. This permit can’t be issued until right-of-way ownership can be certified and all environmental permits are in hand."
Benson said the project will affect utilities with either overhead lines or underground pipes.
"Those companies have to have time to identify the conflicts and design their utility relocations. Also, the GDOT review was very thorough because the county will ask GDOT to make this road the new route for State Route 201," he said
Commissioners also voted 4-0 to:
• Approve a $49,600 contract with Moreland Altobelli and Associates to design a new intersection and signal at the planned entrance to the new North Whitfield Middle School and Cleveland Highway. The entrance will be opposite Maple Grove Road, forming a four-way intersection.
• Approve a $17,000 contract with Carbondale Land Co. for a sewer easement so that a planned sewer extension to the Carbondale Business Park can run across property the company owns.
Board Chairman Lynn Laughter typically votes only in the event of a tie.