The two Georgia Department of Transportation representatives who attended the first meeting of newly appointed Sounding Board on the U.S. 441 widening project in southern Oconee County had a very clear message.
“There is no alignment set for this project at this time,” Brad Saxon, assistant state program delivery engineer, said near the beginning of the meeting.
When asked for clarification by an audience member, he restated that he meant there is “no route” for the road project from just south of Watkinsville to the Morgan County line, including for a bypass of Bishop.
GDOT now is focusing its data gathering on the existing route, Albert V. Shelby III, state program delivery engineer and Saxon’s superior, said.
Because the state is going forward with the project without federal funding, Shelby said, there is “nothing that drives us to a four lane divided facility any more.”
Williams Chaired Meeting
State Rep. Chuck Williams chaired the meeting of the Sounding Board, which he preferred to call the “Citizen Advisory Committee” for the U.S. 441 widening project.
The meeting, which took place on Dec. 22 in the Bishop Community, was attended by about 30 citizens in addition to the eight members of the Sounding Board.
The Oconee County Board of Commissioners “affirmed” the composition of the Sounding Board at its meeting on Dec. 15.
Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis assembled the members of the Sounding Board following a meeting Davis organized on June 16 at the Courthouse in Watkinsville.
At that meeting, Saxon and another GDOT representative had requested that Davis put together a citizen group.
Question From Audience
The eight Sounding Board members were seated with Shelby and Saxon at the front of the room, and Williams initially proposed that discussion begin among those 10 persons.
Saxon and Shelby started with an overview of the project, and audience members quickly joined the Sounding Board members in asking questions.
I was not able to attend the session, but Sarah Bell and Russ Page did and independently recorded the meeting on video.
I have edited their two versions together without cutting any part of the meeting, and that video is below. The meeting, which started at 6 p.m., lasted just more than 50 minutes.
In addition to Williams, who represents the southern part of Oconee County in the Georgia General Assembly, other attendees included Rep. Regina Quick, who represents the northeastern part of the county, and Sen. Bill Cowsert, whose district includes all of Oconee County.
Quick did not speak, but Cowsert, who joined the session late, emphasized that the goal of the meeting and others to follow is to make sure “the public has open access to information” on the project.
Jamie Boswell, who represents Oconee County and other counties on the Georgia Transportation Board, also attended the meeting but did not make any comments. The state Transportation Board has oversight responsibility for GDOT.
Chairman Davis was the only of the five members of the Board of Commissioners to attend the meeting, but he did not speak.
Sounding Board Members
At the beginning of the meeting, each of the eight members of the Sounding Board introduced herself or himself, and several indicated that they had been asked by Bishop Mayor Johnny Pritchett to serve on the Board.
Pritchett, in turn, said he had been asked by Davis.
In addition to Pritchett, the Sounding Board consists of county Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan, Land Use Committee member Tammy Gilland, as well as land owners Jerry Thomas, Walter Lee, Buddy Murrow, Bobby Griggs, and Bill Douglas.
Williams said that the Sounding Board–or, as her preferred, Citizen Advisory Committee–is really under the control of GDOT, which may appoint additional members in the future.
Route Central Issue
The status of work on the project has been a central concern since the public first learned about the revival of the U.S. 441 widening project in February.
As Saxon explained it at the Dec. 22 meeting, the state initially did intend to reactivate the project by going back to routes under consideration 10 years ago.
But all of that changed, Saxon and Shelby said, when the state decided to fund the project using money from the increased fuel tax and newly imposed hotel tax approved by the General Assembly in March.
Now that only state money is being used, and there are different standards for such things as environmental impact, GDOT has decided to start completely anew. Shelby said it is possible the route might not be four lines wide and might not be divided by a median.
Late last year, when GDOT issued its request for qualifications for engineering services, it made reference to the routes under consideration 10 years ago.
Saxon and Shelby said that successful bidder KCI Technologies Inc. of Sparks, Md., is now being told to focus instead on the existing roadway.
Saxon acknowledged that surveyors had been doing work on the old routes and apologized to landowners, saying that state surveyors had gone onto property without informing the landowners, in violation of state policy.
That, he said, won’t happen in the future.
The next meeting of the Sounding Board will be sometime this spring, the GDOT officials said.
Shelby at one point said that GDOT would “educate” the group on “how we came to the decisions that are being made” and show alternatives if they are available.
Later, however, he modified that position, saying the process would be more interactive.
“We want you to feel like you are a collaborative part of the process, which you are,” he said.