Henry County favors roads over rail

Atlanta Forward: The future of regional transportation

In Henry County, it’s common for residents to treat I-75 as Main Street to get from one town to another.

But they must jockey for space with tractor-trailers, daily commuters — and carloads of folks trying to get to Florida or Tennessee.

“I avoid the interstate except for work,” said Stephanie Meeks, a server who travels daily from McDonough to the Atlanta Fish Market in Buckhead. “On the interstate, it can be anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half to get into the city.”

In the past decade, Henry County has seen its population increase by about 70 percent — to more than 200,000 now — while its economic importance in moving goods across the state, especially between Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and the Savannah port, also grew. However, the roadways other than I-75 haven’t kept up with the growth.

If an earlier vote is an indication, residents such as Meeks are open to paying an extra penny in sales tax — part of the 2012 transportation referendum — if it will mean smoother commutes not just on the highway but on the state roads that carry local motorists.

In 2007, voters in Henry County easily approved a special-purpose local-option sales tax to help address road needs. However, that was before the economic downturn.

Henry lies on the southeastern edge of the 10-county region that will vote on the transportation tax next year. The county has submitted suggestions for a regional project list that reflects the county’s need to ease the crowding on I-75. Its largest request is for $83.5 million to widen nearly all of Ga. 42 as it loops north and south through the county. The road, also known as U.S. 23, is the main arterial to the east of the interstate.

A second major project calls for building a parallel connector road to the west of the highway between three of the county’s I-75 exits. The road, between Hudson Bridge Road and Jonesboro Road, is projected to cost $17.2 million.

The projects offer local drivers a way to stay off the highway, while also creating more space so trucks coming from the county’s two industrial parks have easier interstate access.

“If you get the 18-wheelers rolling, you get the cars rolling as well,” said County Commission Chairman Elizabeth “B.J.” Mathis. “Our road network is 20 years behind a place like Cobb and Gwinnett because our growth just started five or six years ago.”

Indeed, Henry is somewhere between the outpost it once was and the suburban county it is becoming.

Most of the county’s most-traveled roads — aside from I-75 — are state roads that go from farmland to subdivisions in just a few miles. The industrial parks and rumbling trucks belie its location almost halfway between Macon and Atlanta.

Its role as a logistics hub helped the county create more than 1,000 jobs last year — one of the few communities to see an uptick in employment in the down economy, said Kay Pippin, president of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce.

Roadway improvements will help better move people and goods through the county, Pippin said.

“Transportation means everything in Henry County,” she said. “For business purposes, it’s imperative that we find more transportation solutions.”

One option not on the county’s list — and a source of friction among leaders, residents and business interests — is commuter rail.

With its project list, neighboring Clayton County has revived the possibility of launching passenger rail service between Atlanta and, eventually, Macon. The project, last estimated at $156.7 million for one leg, includes a stop at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, at the fringe of Henry County.

The chamber and business leaders argue the connection will help funnel people to one of the county’s top tourist attractions (the other being Tanger Outlet Center at Exit 212) and give residents more options.

Commissioners dismiss the notion by noting they specifically did not ask for it. Residents also shoot down any need for trains in a county where the cities, and the population, remain spread out. Though federal funds had been earmarked for this rail service before, getting a local match had been a problem.

“All the improvements made south of Atlanta just drove people further south to us,” said Mike West, a McDonough grocery manager who is opposed to the tax. “More projects will just drive folks further and further away.”

Mathis said she believes many residents will see the benefits of better roads. A 2008 special local-option sales tax, the one approved in 2007, has made tangible improvements.

This year, more than $70 million of projects are under construction. That includes paving for the first time some of the 100 miles of dirt roads in the county and making improvements at dozens of intersections.

A major project on the local list is already done: widening Eagles Landing Parkway, a road that juts east to Ga. 42 from the Hudson Bridge Road exit on I-75. The county turned the parkway into a six-lane road, but that’s only the first phase. The county is also picking up the road past Ga. 42 to Ga. 155. The extension is due to be finished next March.

Still, the prospect of more orange barrels and torn-up asphalt does give some residents pause.

“Frankly I’m tired of all the construction,” said Brandon Frazier, a delivery driver who travels only in Henry County. “I’ll probably say no [to a new tax], but I want to see the final projects. If they improve the access roads ... maybe.”


Henry County

  • Incorporated: May 15, 1821
  • Population: 203,922
  • Total area: 322.7 square miles
  • County seat: McDonough
  • Interstate lanes: 129.07 miles

Projects to watch

  • U.S. 23 /Ga. 42 from Ga. 138 to Butts County line: Widening, $83.5 million
  • Ga. 155 (North McDonough Road) from Spalding County line to Bill Gardner Parkway: Widening (Phase 2), $10.5 million
  • Ga. 155 (North McDonough Road) from Bill Gardner Parkway to Racetrack Road: Widening (Phase 1), $36.7 million
  • Ga. 155 from Turner Church Road to Kellytown Road: Widening (Phase 3), $31.2 million
  • Bill Gardner Parkway from Ga. 155 (North McDonough Road) to I-75 South: Widening, $44.3 million
  • Bill Gardner Parkway from I-75 South to U.S. 23 /Ga. 42: Widening, $11.9 million
  • McDonough Parkway Extension from U.S. 23 (Atlanta Street) to Ga. 20 (Conyers Highway): New Alignment (Phases 1 and 2), $23 million
  • Rock Quarry Road from Eagles Landing Parkway to Ga. 138: Widening, $25 million
  • Western Parallel Connector from Hudson Bridge Road to Ga. 920 (Jonesboro Road): New Alignment, $17.2 million
  • Atlanta to Macon Commuter Rail: Region 3 (Fulton, Clayton and Henry counties), $156.7 million

Search projects and leave your comments

Cities and towns submitted their wish lists in March: more than 400 projects worth up to $29 billion or more. Go to ajc.com/go/transportation to see which projects hit closest to home and which have regional effects.