Sunday, October 04, 2009

Oconee Presents Confused Picture of MACORTS Priorities

Which List Did We Put That On?

Oconee County has three road projects on the list of transportation improvements to be financed in the next six years by state and federal road funds.

The three are the widening of Mars Hill road/Experiment Station road from SR 316 to Watkinsville, the widening of Simonton Bridge road from Clarke County to Watkinsville, and an extension of Daniells Bridge road with a flyover of SR Loop 10.

These are the projects county officials on Sept. 9 put on a priority list when they met with officials of Clarke and Madison counties to designate projects for state and federal funding in the next six years.

They also are the projects interested citizens can review and comment on from 5 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 13, at the Community Center in Oconee Veterans Park.

Anyone who attended by Sept. 29 meeting of the Board of Commissioners, however, can be excused for not fulling understand that these are the county’s top road priorities.

At that meeting, BOC Chairman Melvin Davis and Public Works Director Emil Beshara said the Simonton Bridge road and Daniells Bridge Road Extension were on the long-term, rather than short term list of projects.

Beshara also blamed confusing documents for citizen misunderstanding about Simonton Bridge road widening, though documents produced by the Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study (MACORTS) as recently as July listed the project as a four-lane widening, as did ones produced five years ago.

More recent documents simply don’t specify how wide the road will be after it is widened.

The discussion of the roadway projects came at the beginning of the Sept. 29 meeting, when Chairman Davis asked Beshara if the Simonton Bridge road widening and the Daniells Bridge Road Extension were on the list of projects for the next six years or on a list of "long-range plans" for 2020-2025.

Beshara said that it was his "understanding" they were long-range projects.

Beshara also said "no one" he has talked to wants to widen the road to four lanes but that there was some understandable confusion on the part of the public "created by the very brief descriptions of these projects" in the public documents.

The confusion on the part of Davis is particularly surprising.

At its Sept. 9 meeting, the MACORTS Policy Committee was to review and approve a draft of the Fiscal Year 2010 to 2013 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), according to the Tentative Agenda for that meeting.

Davis and citizen Frank Watson, the two Oconee County voting representatives to the Policy Committee, attended that meeting, according to Sherry Moore, a transportation planner with Athens-Clarke County and the designated contact person on MACORTS matters.

She said the Policy Committee approved the draft TIP that included the Mars Hill road, Simonton road and Daniells Bridge road projects, though she said minutes would not be released until they had been approved by the committee itself.

The first phase of the Mars Hill road project–from SR 316 to Hog Mountain road in Butler’s Crossing--is the only Tier 1 project in the county, meaning funding is expected in the fiscal years 2010 to 2013.

The remainder of the Mars Hill road project, all of the Simonton Bridge road project and the Daniells Bridge Road Extension are listed as Tier II projects, meaning they will be covered in Fiscal Years 2014 and 2015.

No money has been set aside so far for the second and third phases of the Mars Hill road widening or for the Simonton Bridge road widening, and both are designated as "long range."

But the TIP includes $50,000 for preliminary engineering of the Daniells Bridge Road Extension in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 and indicates that construction will begin in 2017.

Angela O. Whitworth from the Georgia Department of Transportation wrote BOC Chairman Davis on July 29, 2009, regarding the Daniells Bridge Road Extension project, designated CSSTP-007-00(943) in the letter.

That letter was called a Sponsor Project Notification and indicated that the county soon will receive a Project Framework Agreement. That July 29 letter was crucial when the Policy Committee decided on Sept. 9 to include the Daniells Bridge Road Extension on the list, Moore told me in a telephone conversation I had with her on Sept. 22.

I filed an open records request with the county for the letter on Sept. 27 and was given a copy Sept. 30. The letter contains notation from "MD" indicating it was to be sent to Beshara on Aug. 3.

The MACORTS TIP document indicates that Mars Hill road will be widened to four lanes and that the Daniells Bridge road extension also will be four lanes wide.

The TIP document says that the plan is to "Widen Simonton Bridge Road from SR 15 to the Clarke County line. This project would include 4-ft. bike lanes."

In the boxes for number of existing lanes and number of planned lanes, "n/a" is typed.

In the July 15, 2009, draft of the 2010-2035 MACORTS Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) update, however, the description for Simonton Bridge road was "Widen/reconstruction from 3rd St to Athens-Clarke County line to make 4-lane roadway with additional turn lanes as needed. Project will include 4-ft bicycle."

That document was on the MACORTS web site before the Sept. 9 meeting and was to be approved at that session, according to the agenda. It is still there tonight, and it contains this same description of the project.

The 2005-2030 Long Range Transportation Plan contained the same description, according to the Feb. 10, 2009, minutes of the county’s Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning. Watson, the citizen member of the MACORTS Policy Committee, is a member of that advisory committee as well.

The Watkinsville city council voted unanimously on Aug. 12 to oppose the widening of Simonton Bridge road.

Oconee Commissioner Chuck Horton asked at the Sept. 29 meeting of the BOC if it wouldn’t be a good idea for the BOC to take the project off the list to avoid confusion.

Davis told Horton that Beshara already was engaged in discussions about the project with MACORTS. Horton didn't respond, and none of the other board members expressed an opinion.

The MACORTS Policy Committee could have dropped Simonton Bridge road from the priority list at its Sept. 9 meeting.

It put Simonton Bridge road widening (as well as the other two projects), at the top of a long list of county road projects in the northern, urbanized part of the county.

Included in the rejected projects–listed in the 2010 to 2035 long range plan and eligible for inclusion on the priority TIP list--were a widening of Daniells Bridge Road from Chestnut Hill Road to Hog Mountain road to include additional turn lanes, widening to four lanes of Hog Mountain road from Butler’s Crossing to US 441, a reconstruction and widening of Jimmy Daniell road from the Clarke County line to Virgil Langford road, construction of a bypass for SR 15 as it comes into Watkinsville south of the city, and widening of Union Church Road to four lanes from Hog Mountain road to High Shoals road.

The Mars Hill Road widening is the top unfunded priority for the county, and the county is in the process of beginning right of way acquisition for the first phase of the project. Money for right of way acquisition but not construction has been allocated by the state.

The roadway upgrade is designed to improve traffic flow and to open up more land in the county for commercial development.

No one said this at the meeting on Sept. 29, but the Simonton Bridge road widening can be seen as a continuation of the Mars Hill road project, opening up more land for development along a continuous corridor leading into Athens.

One big problem is moving that traffic through Watkinsville.

The city raised objections to the initial plans to bring the Mars Hill road/Experiment Station road widening into the city because of the disruption it would cause to the city’s existing commercial and industrial sites as well as city buildings.

The traffic also will end on Main street, which is two lanes wide and passes through the heart of Watkinsville.

The proposal to widen Simonton Bridge road from the Clarke county line to two-lane wide Third Street in Watkinsville would create similar traffic flow problems for the city.

The comments by Davis, Beshara and Horton at the Sept. 29 meeting came during the Statement and Remarks by Citizens section of the meeting. I asked the whole board to get involved in the discussion of the MACORTS priority list rather than simply let the chairman speak for the county.

Federal law requires that all urban areas over 50,000 in population engage in a Transportation Planning Process.

MACORTS is the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization for the city of Athens and Clarke County, and, since the 1980 U. S. Census, for the northern portion of Oconee County. The southernmost portion of Madison County was added in 2003.

The urbanized part of Oconee County included in MACORTS coverage is bounded by Hog Mountain Road and then loops south of Watkinsville and continues on a line south of and parallel to Barnett Shoals road to the Clarke County line.

The TIP and the LRTP are required by the federal government for the MACORTS area to receive federal and state urban transportation funding.

TIP contains all the projects that will be eligible for federal and/or state funding during the next four fiscal years, labeled as Tier 1 projects. TIP also includes a second two-year list of projects, called Tier 2 projects.

LRTP lists anticipated transportation needs for the next 20 years. All projects that make it into the TIP must have been included in the LRTP, which is updated every five years.

The MACORTS public hearing on the proposed priority list of projects on Oct. 13 at the Community Center in Oconee Veterans Park is part of the required process for public comment.

A meeting of the county’s Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning will follow. The committee is scheduled to continue its discussion of the future of the county courthouse.

The exchange regarding MACORTS is on my Vimeo site. The full Sept. 29 meeting is viewable on the county's Vimeo site.

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