The meeting on Monday night was on a technical issue involving funding for the widening of U.S. 441 and construction of a Bishop bypass, but the more than 30 people who crammed the room had a broader range of concerns.
Sherry McDuffie, planner with the Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study (MACORTS), anticipated those concerns, and she told the group at the beginning of what was billed as a drop-in session that she didn’t have information on the future route or other matters.
When she threw the meeting open for questions, the topic quickly turned to routes, with several farmers around Bishop saying that surveyors had been on their property, without forewarning, leaving behind in some occasions stakes with tape on them.
But many of those present also were concerned with the narrow issue of whether the project should go forward with state funding from the newly imposed state fuel tax and hotel tax increases to fund state transportation projects or continue to rely on a mixture of state and federal funding.
McDuffie said the process would be slower and more costly if federal funds were used, but she also told a questioner that the federal process would do more to protect properties in the area.
McDuffie made her comment about the differences between federal and state funding early in the meeting in response to a question from Joyce Hardigree, whose family owns property around Bishop.
The exchange, in which McDuffie said the federal regulations would be more protective of property, is below.
McDuffie also said the federal requirements were “more stringent” in terms of environment regulation.
Emil Beshara, Public Works director for Oconee County, challenged McDuffie, saying that the “ecological type environmental regulations” will be the same regardless of whether funding is federal or state.
He said the state wants to be able to work with a “more relaxed cultural type environmental structure.” The federal standards would go further to protect historic properties, he said. The video clip below provides details.
Positively Oconee Meeting
Many in the crowd on Monday had to stand because of inadequate seating in the room selected for the meeting at the Community Center in Oconee Veterans Park on Hog Mountain Road.
That crowd grew at the meeting progressed.
Tomorrow night 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.
The meeting will start with a brief recounting of the history of the project and an explanation of what has taken place since the state Department of Transportation in January asked MACORTS to revive the project.
The meeting on Monday was a reversal of course, with GDOT asking MACORTS to withdraw from the project since federal funds will not be used.
Who Made Decision?
Who made the decision to more forward without federal funding remains a mystery.
McDuffie said on Monday night that the Georgia Transportation Board took that action, but Brad Saxon, assistant state program delivery engineer with GDOT, told me after the meeting that he did not think the Transportation Board made the change.
Saxon said he thought the decision to go with state funding was made internally at GDOT, but that the decision to revive the project was made by the Transportation Board.
Jamie Boswell, area representative to the Transportation Board, attended at least part of the meeting on Monday, and he told me after the session he did not recall voting either to reactivate the project or to go with state funding.
Minutes No Help
Boswell said it is possible the Transportation Board did vote to do these things as part of some larger issue.
I have searched the minutes of the Transportation Board for the last two years and could find no reference to any Board action on U.S. 441.
Those minutes are brief, providing little detail of what the Board does at its monthly meetings.
Neither Saxon nor Boswell corrected McDuffie’s statement that the decision was made by the Transportation Board.
The key question for most of those at the meeting was the route that will be taken, particularly for the bypass of Bishop.
Back in 2005, the state had identified five different routes for that bypass and designated one of them as the “current bypass alignment.”
That route swings widely around the city on its east side.
Saxon presented a rough drawing of those five routes to attendees of an unpublicized meeting organized by BOC Chairman Melvin Davis on June 16 in the Grand Jury Room of the Courthouse in Watkinsville.
I learned of that meeting and of the documents shared at it through open records requests.
At the meeting on Monday night, Saxon went to great length to say that no route for the bypass or the remainder of the project running to the Morgan County line has been determined.
At the meeting on June 16, however, Saxon and project Manager Eric Wilkinson “explained that the alignment is not set in stone, but we are trying to deliver the project as shown on the layouts shown.”
I obtained those plans via another open records request, and the plans are the same one Beshara had provided to me back in June and which are stored on my Oconee County Observations box.net site.
They seem to follow the wide-swinging eastern bypass route of Bishop.
List Of Attendees
According to the minutes of that June 16 meeting, Beshara was joined by Chairman Davis and Wayne Provost, director of Strategic and Long Range Planning for the county.
Bishop Mayor Johnny Pritchett and Oconee County Representative Chuck Williams also were present.
The final attendee was Boswell, district representative to the Transportation Board.
Saxon told one of those in attendance at the meeting on Monday night that the state will determine the final route or routes and then come back to citizens for response.
Additional MACORTS Action
The meeting on Monday night was a required step before MACORTS officially can remove the U.S. 441 widening project from its 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan and the Fiscal Year 2015-2015 Transportation Improvement Program.
The amendments to these two plans are scheduled to go the MACORTS Technical Coordinating Committee for a recommendation on Jan. 27 and to the MACORTS Policy Committee for approval on Feb 10.
MACORTS accepted public comments on that action at the hearing on Monday.
Additional comments will be accepted until Dec. 14 and can be emailed to MACORTS at email@example.com.
I attended the Monday meeting, but Sarah Bell shot the video that I used for the clips above.
The full video of the meeting, from which those clips were taken, is below.
The video begins just after McDuffie opened the meeting, telling those present that she did not have information on the route of the proposed new road.
The meeting was attended by BOC Chairman Davis and Commissioner William “Bubber” Wilkes, but neither of them spoke.
Here is a brief timeline of the resurrected widening of U.S. 441 and Bishop bypass, based on documents I have found and on meetings that took place.
◘ July 22, 2014
Cynthia L. VanDyke, GDOT transportation planning administrator, sent to Albert Shelby, GDOT program delivery engineer, and GDOT Project Manager Wilkinson a Project Justification Statement saying that the widening is “needed to alleviate congestion along the SR24/US 441 corridor and to better accommodate current and future demand due to the route’s inclusion in the Governor’s Road Improvement Program system and the state’s Freight Corridor Network.
◘ Jan. 12, 2015
Radney Simpson from the GDOT Office of Planning in Atlanta sent McDuffey from MACORTS an email message 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.
◘ Feb. 11, 2015
The MACORTS Policy Committee 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.
◘ June 16, 2015
A group organized by Chairman Davis met at the Courthouse in Watkinsville in the unpublicized meeting to discuss the project.
◘ July 8, 2015
The MACORTS Policy Committee formally added the four-laning of U.S. 441 from Watkinsville to the Apalachee River to the FY 2015– 2018 Transportation Improvement Program.
◘ Oct. 28, 2015
McDuffie 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. Georgia Department of Transportation Planner Kyle Mote, also in attendance, confirmed the decision, which he said he assumed was “political.”
◘ Nov. 12, 2015
The MACORTS Policy Committee voted to remove the U.S. 441 widening from the MACORTS documents.
◘ Nov. 30, 2015
MACORTS held a public hearing in the Community Center at in Oconee Veterans Park on the decision to remove the U.S. 441 widening from MACORTS documents and jurisdiction.