The Georgia Department of Transportation has decided to build the bypass of Bishop and widen U.S. 441 from the Morgan County line to Watkinsville entirely with state funds, bypassing the normal processes associated with federal highway funding.
That decision moves the timetable forward so that project engineering will begin in 2019 and right of way acquisition and actual construction is now slated for 2022.
Sherry McDuffie, transportation planner, made the announcement of the change in state plans at the Wednesday morning meeting of the Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study (MACORTS), the federally mandated urban transportation planning body.
McDuffie said the decision to use exclusively state funding was made by the state Transportation Board.
Georgia Department of Transportation Planner Kyle Mote said that, while he had no personal knowledge of the reason for the decision, he assumed it was “political.” He did not elaborate.
State Vs. Federal Funds
McDuffie made the announcement about U.S. 441 funding during a discussion of changes to the MACORTS Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) and Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) at the Wednesday meeting of the MACORTS Technical Coordinating Committee.
McDuffie said that the decision by the state to assume full responsibility for funding the U.S. 441 widening in Oconee County freed up $11.8 million that MACORTS could allocate to bridge projects along SR Loop 10, including some work on the bridge over the Middle Oconee River just east of the Oconee County line.
David Clark, director of the Transportation and Public Works Department of Athens-Clarke County, said he thought the decision to use the federal funds for the bridge projects was “odd” in part because the projects had not been a high priority.
Mote said the decision to avoid use of the federal funds for the U.S. 441 project in Oconee County was because “there was some environment and historical stuff that was going on in Bishop and there was a large public outcry about the Bishop Bypass.”
Speed Up Process
Mote said using state rather than federal funding “really frees up what we’re going to do.”
The state has new revenue because the legislature increased the tax on motor fuels in the year’s session when it passed House Bill 170.
The switch to state funding “gives us a little more freedom to get through the process a little bit faster,” Mote said.
Brad Griffin, director of the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department and chair of the Coordinating Committee, said that the decision means that MACORTS will hold no more public hearings on the U.S. 441 plans.
MACORTS reactivated the dormant U.S. 441 project in February at the request of GDOT.
Jamie Boswell, local commercial real estate broker, is the area representative to the Georgia Transportation Board.
At a meeting in June, Emil Beshara, Oconee County Public Works director, told the MACORTS Technical Coordinating Committee that a route east of the city has been selected as one that will be used as a basis for initial study of the bypass route.
The video below is of the full discussion of the U.S. 441 project at the meeting this week at the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department.
316 And Connector
At the request of Beshara, the MACORTS Technical Coordinating Committee agreed to discuss at its meeting in January how to speed up funding for construction of a grade-separated interchange of SR 316 and the Oconee Connector.
Beshara told the group that the intersection was the most congested in the county and is “the cause of the vast majority of time delays" in the county.
The proposal is to get the state to break out funding for this intersection from the overall funding of intersection improvements along SR 316 so that the interchange with the Oconee Connector can be upgraded more quickly.
The video below is of the full discussion of that request by Beshara. GDOT’s Planner Mote responded approvingly to Beshara’s request.
Jimmy Daniell Too
The MACORTS Technical Coordinating Committee also had to deal with the implications of the decision of GDOT not to fund the widening of Jimmy Daniell Road.
GDOT reached that decision because of a botched project framework agreement signed by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.
Oconee County never specified where the funds for the project were going to come from, and GDOT never issued a project framework agreement for Athens-Clarke County, which was to be a partner in the project.
Clark from Athens-Clarke County suggested that MACORTS redirect the funding for the widening of Jimmy Daniell Road to design of a grade separated interchange on SR 316 and Jimmy Daniell Road or to the SR 316 and Oconee Connecter interchange.
The Coordinating Committee agreed to revisit the issue at its next meeting in January.
The video below is of the discussion on Wednesday. Clark is seated to the right of Beshara.
Mars Hill And Hog Mountain
During the section of the Wednesday morning meeting set aside for county reports, Beshara told the group that the Mars Hill Road widening project is progressing as planned and that the first major traffic shift is scheduled for the first week of December.
One of the two bridges over Barber Creek is nearly completed, Beshara said,
“We are very pleased with how that is going at this point of time,” Beshara said.
Beshara also gave an update on the improvements being made at the intersection of Hog Mountain Road and U.S. 441.
The video of that presentation is below.
Video Of Full Meeting
I was not able to attend the MACORTS meeting on Wednesday morning.
Russ Page, who has been active in preservation of farmland in the county, did attend and recorded the meeting. The clips above are from Page’s video.
The full video of the MACORTS Technical Coordinating Committee meeting shot by Page is available on the Vimeo site of Oconee County Observations.