The Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study (MACORTS) is holding a public hearing from 5 to 7 p.m. on Monday as a required step in removing the widening of U.S. 441 and construction of the Bishop bypass from the constraints of federal funding for the road project.
On Dec. 3, a newly formed citizen group calling itself Positively Oconee will hold another meeting at 7 p.m. in the Oconee County Library in Watkinsville to give people a chance to exchange information about the widening of U.S. 441 and construction of a bypass of Bishop.
Current plans are for engineering for the roadway to begin in 2019 with right of way acquisition and actual construction scheduled for 2022.
The MACORTS Policy Committee voted on Nov. 12 to take steps to remove the U.S. 441 project from the list of federally-funded roadway projects in the urbanized part of Oconee County, which extends from Watkinsville to just outside Bishop.
Since the widening south of that demarcation line is part of the same design, all of the U.S. 441 widening, including the bypass of Bishop, has been incorporated into MACORTS documents.
MACORTS is the federally-mandated planning body for the urban area surrounding Athens-Clarke County.
The Georgia Department of Transportation announced at the MACORTS Technical Coordinating Committee meeting on Oct. 28 that it planned to fund the widening of U.S 441 from Madison in Morgan County to Watkinsville from state funds, now that the legislature has provided new monies for transportation as part of the motor fuel tax and hotel tax increases passed by the legislature on March 31.
By eliminating the federal funding, GDOT frees itself from the constraints imposed by the federal government on highway construction it funds through the states. Included are required public hearings and reviews focusing on the impact of the project on the environment and historic and cultural sites.
Concerns about the impact of the Bishop bypass on farmland as well as its impact on historic sites and the environment have slowed the project.
In an unpublicized meeting organized by BOC Chairman Melvin Davis on June 16, Brad Saxon, assistant GDOT programming engineer, said the federal funding was holding up the project.
Because the project is more than 10 years old and has not moved to right of way authorization, the Federal Highway Administration required GDOT to reprogram the project, according to the minutes of the meeting that I received through my open records request.
Eric Wilkinson, GDOT project manager, said that the project had since been reprogrammed and that he “hopes that the funds will become available in July or August,” according to the minutes.
The minutes noted that GDOT was working on the amendment to bring the 2016 Preliminary Engineering phase into the current Transportation Improvement Program and Second Tier of Projects.
The vote of the MACORTS Policy Committee on Nov. 12 now reverses that action.
The June 16 meeting took place in the Grand Jury Room of the Courthouse in Watkinsville.
Since it did not involve any member of the Board of Commissioners other than Davis, the county was not required to publicly announce the meeting or make available an agenda or minutes.
The minutes I was able to obtain indicate that GDOT District Engineer Brent Cook joined Saxon and Wilkinson at the meeting.
Chairman Davis, Wayne Provost, director of Strategic and Long Range Planning for the county, and county Public Works Director Emil Beshara represented Oconee County.
Bishop Mayor Johnny Pritchett and Oconee County Representative Chuck Williams also were present.
The final attendee was Jamie Boswell, district representative to the Georgia Transportation Board.
Sherry McDuffie, transportation planner with MACORTS, told the MACORTS Technical Coordinating Committee last month that the decision to use exclusively state funding for the U.S. 441 project was made by the state Transportation Board.
Georgia Department of Transportation Planner Kyle Mote said at that same meeting that, while he had no personal knowledge of the reason for the decision, he assumed it was “political.” He did not elaborate.
The minutes from the June 16 meeting indicate that the route remains a primary concern.
According to those minutes, Saxon and Wilkinson “explained that the alignment is not set in stone, but we are trying to deliver the project as shown on the layouts provided. Once all the environmental studies are complete the alignment will be assessed and avoidance measures may be needed.”
The layouts were not included in the minutes, but the minutes indicate that the state is not starting from scratch in looking at the project.
Citizen Involvement Discussed
The minutes of that June 16 minute indicate that there was discussion of creation of a citizen advisory committee on the U.S. 441 project.
“Chairman Davis advised that the committee be created and used early,” according to the minutes, which were distributed in an email message from Wilkinson.
The minutes indicate that Wilkinson asked Davis to appoint the committee.
The county has a Citizen Advisory Committee On Land Use And Transportation Planning, but it so far has not been involved in the changes in the U.S. 441 project.
Bob Sanders, a member of the Land Use Committee, is a member of the MACORTS Policy Committee, but he did not discuss the upcoming Nov. 12 meeting of the Policy Committee at the Land Use Committee meeting on Nov. 10.
BOC Chairman Davis is the other represent of Oconee County on the Policy Committee.
The video below is of McDuffie at the Nov. 12 meeting, held at the Planning Department of Athens-Clarke County.
The MACORTS open meeting on Monday will follow a drop-in format with no formal presentation. MACORTS staff are to be available to provide information and answer questions.
The purpose of the meeting is to provide an opportunity for the public to review and comment upon proposed amendments to the 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan, the Fiscal Year 2015 - 2018 Transportation Improvement Program, and the Fiscal Year 2019 - 2020 Second Tier of Projects.
The changes are the deletion of the US 441 South Widening project from these documents due to a change in funding status and the addition of three bridge replacement projects along the SR 10 Loop at the Middle Oconee River, at the North Oconee River, and at SR 8 and U.S. 29.
MACORTS’ McDuffie said she has invited Bruce Anderson, project manager for the U.S. 441 widening, to the Monday night meeting, but, as of today, she said she had not received a confirmation from him.
Russ Page, who has long been active in farmland preservation and land use issues in the county, told me that he has received word from Anderson that he (Anderson) will attend.
Positively Oconee is organizing the Dec. 3 meeting to give citizens an opportunity to share information about the project and discuss its implications for the county.
The route of the Bishop bypass has been controversial since the project was discussed more than 10 years ago because of the historical value of land around Bishop and because of the value of the farmland, some of which has been protected by conservation easements funded by the federal government and by Oconee County.
One previously proposed route cut through eight family farms, which have been in those families for an average of 100 years, according to Page.
The widened road south of Bishop would follow the existing roadway through the least developed part of the county.
Page has taken the lead in organizing the Dec. 3 meeting on behalf of Positively Oconee, a group that has held informal meetings in recent months to provide citizens an opportunity to get involved in issues in the county. (I have attended those meetings. Page also shot the video from the Nov. 12 MACORTS meeting.)
The meeting in the Oconee County Library, 1080 Experiment Station Road in Watkinsville, is open to the public, and Positively Oconee is encouraging all residents of Oconee County to attend.
Radney Simpson from the GDOT Office of Planning in Atlanta sent McDuffey from MACORTS an email message on Jan. 12 of this year asking her to amend the existing Transportation Improvement Program to include the U.S. 441 widening and Bishop bypass as a way of reviving the project.
The MACORTS Policy Committee on Feb. 11 officially began the process of amending the FY2015-2018 Transportation Improvement Program for the urbanized parts of the three counties to include the U.S. 441 project. Public comment was required before action could be taken.
The group organized by Chairman Davis met on June 16 at the Courthouse in Watkinsville in the unpublicized meeting to discuss the project.
The MACORTS Policy Committee on July 8 formally added the four-laning of U.S. 441 from Watkinsville to the Apalachee River to the FY 2015– 2018 Transportation Improvement Program.
GDOT announced at a MACORTS Technical Coordinating Committee meeting on Oct. 28 that the U.S. 441 widening project will not use federal funds, relying instead on state money generated by the transportation tax increase that went into effect on July 1.
The MACORTS Policy Committee on Nov. 12 voted to remove the U.S. 441 widening from the MACORTS documents, loosening the federal restrictions on the project. Final action will be taken in February following the public hearing in Oconee County as well as hearings in Athens-Clarke County and Madison County.