Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Mars Hill Road Widening On Schedule Even Without Federal Funding, Oconee County Officials Say

State Borrowing

Oconee County officials now believe that the lack of congressional action to address a projected shortfall in federal highway funding will not affect the pending Mars Hill Road widening project.

Emil Beshara, director of the county's public works department, told the Citizens Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning last night that he expects the state to let bids for the project in July.

The project has been in the works for more than 12 years, Beshara said, and is about to become “reality.” (The very short video contains the full quote.)

The widening will take about three years to complete, Beshara said, and citizens will see action all along the roadway between SR 316 and Butler's Crossing soon after the bid is awarded.

Fearing Delay

Beshara said there had been some concern congressional inaction on transferring additional funding to the federal Highway Trust Fund would keep the Mars Hill Road project from moving forward, since much of the money for the project is coming from the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is estimating that the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Gov. Nathan Deal has decided to borrow money through the bond market, as a contingency, to fund some projects, Beshara said.

Because the Oconee County project is ready for construction, Beshara said, the county has been told the project will be among those moving forward with state funding, if necessary.

Davis Raised Concerns

At the May meeting of the county’s Industrial Development Authority, Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis raised the possibility of a delay in the Mars Hill Road project as a result of congressional disagreement.

He also wrote about the problem in his column in The Oconee Enterprise last week, but he indicated that he had learned that the project was going to be covered through the money borrowed by the state. (The column is on the county web site.)

The situation should become more clear next week, when the State Transportation Board meets in Atlanta. The agenda for the meeting includes a report on projects for July letting.

The Board does have the authority to shift project funding, and the Mars Hill Road widening was delayed several years ago so funding could go first to the Oconee Connector Extension. That project was designed to open up land, including what is now Epps Bridge Centre, for development.

Bridge First

Although construction crews will be clearing the right of way all along the route once the Mars Hill Road project bid is let, Beshara said, much of the early attention will be focused on the bridge over Barber Creek.

Plans are for the construction of a new two-lane bridge east of the current bridge, Beshara said.

That bridge will be about eight or nine feet higher than the current bridge, as the goal is to raise the whole roadway as it approaches and crosses the creek.

Once the new bridge is completed, traffic will be shifted to it, the old bridge will be destroyed, and a second two-lane bridge will be constructed west of the new bridge, according to Beshara.

The new Mars Hill Road will be four lanes, with a median, from SR 316 to Butler’s Crossing. Eventually, it will be widened all the way to Watkinsville.

Questions From Committee

Beshara said there is a lot of citizen interest in the project.

Once the bid is let, he said, the county will hold an informational meet so people can voice their concerns and get answers to their questions.

Beshara answered a number of questions from Committee members last night. It was his second report to the Committee on the project this year. He also gave an overview in February.

The video below contains his introductory comments last night and most of his answers to questions from the Committee. I edited the video to eliminate questions except where Committee members interrupted Beshara as he was speaking.

The video runs a little more than five and a half minutes.

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