Henry growth bringing nightmare traffic to once rural county

For years, Henry County leaders basked in being one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation, including almost doubling in population the last two decades.

But while they were toasting their success, they failed to address the longterm impact of adding so many people to the county’s roads.

Now, Henry is a congestion mess. Several key intersections are a nightmare for motorists because of the county's huge warehousing business in Henry's southern end. It also impacts the rest of metro Atlanta because Henry residents use I-75 as a surface street to avoid slower two-lane county roads.

“When you have a growing county like we have, sometimes it’s hard to catch up,” Henry County Manager Cheri Hobson-Matthews said.

Investment is coming. The county, state and federal governments will spend $227 million improving Henry roads over the next five years, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. That includes widening Ga. 155 at I-75 where nearby million-square-foot warehouses and distribution centers from Home Depot, Wayfair, Tory Burch and Luxottica have sprouted like weeds and caused much of the traffic headaches.

The county also is in the process of hiring its first transportation director and plans to expand several east-west streets to improve crosstown traffic to get residents off the interstate for simple trips like grocery shopping or rotating tires.

Time is of the essence. While it has fallen over the past few years to No. 2 on the metro Atlanta's fastest growth list — Forsyth County is growing quicker — Henry will add another 152,000 people by 2050 for a total population of about 370,000, the ARC estimates.

That’s a lot of traffic for a county that 40 years ago was a rural community of roughly 36,200 residents. Today, about 54 percent on Henry residents travel out of the county for jobs, adding to metro Atlanta’s traffic bottleneck.

Growth keep coming

Henry exploded because it benefited from hundreds of thousands of acres of raw land that was far cheaper than what was available on the north side, leaders said. It’s proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and a push by south metro officials to make the area a logistics powerhouse also made the county attractive to businesses and residents.

Part of the reason the county fell behind on infrastructure is past leaders, while playing up Henry’s growth in the media, were simultaneously trying to slow it down with zoning restrictions on apartment construction and lot sizes for houses, Stockbridge City Councilman Elton Alexander said. Improving roads and making getting around the county easy would only speed up growth, so they pulled back on infrastructure.

But builders and residents kept coming anyway, he said.

“There was a segment of the population that didn’t want to become part of the metro region, but you can’t stop growth,” he said.

Others said improving infrastructure just takes time. This past August, the county celebrated the completion of a 2.9-mile extension of Campground Road that has been on the books since 2002.

“This project started early on back when Jason Harper was the county commissioner,” Gary Barnham, in whose district the road is located, said during a ribbon cutting ceremony for the project. “And then it went on to the next commissioner, which was Randy Stamey. Then I took his place.”

The growth of the county's school system also has contributed to the strain, leaders said. In 2000, Henry Schools had 20,000 students. Today, that number is around 44,000.

“It’s not the county alone, it’s schools and water,” Matthews said. “Where sewer lines are being built and schools are being put in place drives development. When we have discussions we have to bring all the parties to the table.”

For many, however, the culprit for the county’s traffic woes are big rigs. As Henry has solidified its logistics business, the tractor-trailers that criss-cross its streets have some leaders worried the county has bitten off more than it can chew.

"We can't generate enough revenue [from the logistics industry] to keep up with the damage the semi-trucks are doing to our roads," Henry Commissioner Bruce Holmes said. "We have to attract other types of businesses and improve what we collect in our commercial tax base."

In the meantime, the county is considering increasing its impact fees for residential and commercial development as well as creating special taxing districts around the warehouses to try to get the businesses to help pay for infrastructure. (The city of Locust Grove already has a transportation impact fee).

The county also is talking openly about public transit. While it doesn’t have the density yet to make the numbers work for a MARTA-type bus system, leaders said they want to avoid missing an alternative that could help the county avoid future transportation headaches, Matthews said.

“There are so many pieces of the puzzle that we need to talk through,” Matthews said. “Transportation is in every conversation that we have today.”