Businesses struggle as Johns Creek road project nears completion

Shop owners along a 5-mile stretch of highway in Johns Creek have looked out on orange barrels, barricades and road graders for almost three years.

As McGinnis Ferry Road has grown wider, the flow of customers has grown thinner. Commuters either don't want to negotiate turnoffs into parking lots, or they avoid the area altogether, city officials say.

"This is not where we wanted to be," said Salar Vermazani, who owns and operates the Texaco Food Mart at McGinnis Ferry and Medlock Bridge.

Vermazani bought the business last year and sank money into remodeling.

"Hopefully, when the road is finished, business will pick up," he said.

The Georgia Department of Transportation said the project, set for completion this month, likely will go into August. Work will be suspended Aug. 8-14 during the PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club.

"We're frustrated, too," DOT spokesman Mark McKinnon said. "This project certainly hasn't gone as we'd hoped."

The $40.6 million road widening runs along the northern border of the city from the Chattahoochee River west to Sargent Road. It is one of five river crossings into north Fulton and a major commuter route for thousands from Forsyth, Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties.

Utility work began in July 2007 with an original completion date of July 2010. That deadline was extended when contractor C.W. Matthews said the extent of utility relocation was so massive that crews needed more time.

The DOT granted the company a nine-month extension to April 30. But when that deadline passed, the contractor was slapped with a $1,000-a-day fine until work is completed.

Since then, the pace has picked up. Crews have been paving during evening hours and plan to expand into the daytime beginning Wednesday. The DOT said it hopes to have lanes set into their final configuration by July 31.

"There will still need to be some work that has to go on off the roadway after that, but the traffic and all the lanes should be open by the end of July," McKinnon said.

The increased pace has not been fast enough for some businesses.

"It's really been bad," said Medhat Hanna, owner-operator of the Shell service station just west of Medlock Bridge. Business was down about 20 percent last year, but it has gotten worse, he said. "I'm praying, crossing my fingers the work gets done soon," he said.

Across the street at J.Christopher's Restaurants, crowds have fallen off, said Bill Sparks, vice president of operations. Breakfast is down about 15 percent to 20 percent from last year, and lunch is off nearly 30 percent, he said.

The project began taking its toll about two years ago when construction affected the northbound lanes in front of his restaurant. Eight months ago, the southbound lanes were torn up, making the entrance to the restaurant difficult to get to, he said.

"They just left this big mess on the side of that shopping center in front of our place," Sparks said.

The barrels and barricades added to the confusion and often brought traffic to a standstill, he said. "People only have a certain amount of time to eat lunch, and if they feel they need an extra five minutes to go somewhere, they won't come."

Alan Wyatt, owner-operator of nearby Luxe Home Interiors and president of the Johns Creek Business Association, said the roadwork has soured many in the area on roadwork in general.

"After suffering through this painful and protracted construction process, I imagine it's going to be a hard sell to get local voters to approve the penny transportation tax," he said. "My guess is, as they're getting ready to pull the lever, they'll be wondering whether our transportation problems are a cash or management issue."