The 22 people who gathered at the Oconee County Community Center in Veterans Park Thursday night to discuss the proposed widening of U.S. 441 in the south of the county mostly agreed on two important things.
First, a bypass of Bishop is needed for the economic survival of the city and the safety of its residents.
“We want a route that preserves as much of Oconee as it is now as possible,” Carole Ludwig, a farmer with property east of Bishop, said. “That includes historic Bishop, farmland, historic farms, historic structures...We also want our water preserved and our air.”
Goodloe Yancey, who lives on Phinizy Court north of Watkinsville, said “We don’t want another Epps Bridge wherever they put this bypass, and that is a very real possibility...The further out that we go from Bishop, the more likely you are to see developers rush in and build on the land.”
The 90-minute-long meeting ended with those present expressing a determinaton to communicate their concerns to the Georgia Department of Transportation, which is planning the upgrade to the highway, and to county and state officials.
Positively Oconee, a loose collection of citizens wishing to promote and preserve the county, organized the meeting Thursday night in part to allow residents of Bishop to communicate their concerns about the road project.
At a meeting in early December of last year sponsored by Positively Oconee, farmers had expressed opposition to any route that would damage farmland and the natural resources surrounding Bishop.
Nedra Johnson, former mayor of Bishop and now a member of the town Council, said the widened road has to go around the city “or Bishop will cease to be.”
She said businesses have suffered because people cannot safely park or cross the street in the city because of the heavy traffic.
Blessing And Curse
Johnson was joined at the meeting by Bruce McPherson, who operates a design shop on U.S. 441 in Bishop and also is the city’s representative on the Oconee County Planning Commission.
McPherson said that “there are near accidents every single day” along U.S. 441, which now passes as a two-lane road through the heart of Bishop.
McPherson said having the traffic in the center of the city is both a “blessing and a curse,” as he explains in the video clip below.
The Georgia Department of Transportation took steps late last year to reactivate the widening of U.S. 441 from north of the bypass of Madison in Morgan County to the current bypass of Watkinsville.
The route has been designated a major freight corridor by GDOT and is to be a four-lane road from the Florida border to the North Carolina border.
Earlier attempts to widen the roadway in Oconee County had run into problems finding a suitable route around Bishop.
Walter Lee, a member of a Sounding Board appointed by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners in December, joined the discussion Thursday night and said he was there to hear about concerns that he will then relay to GDOT in the future.
Discussion About Contracts
GDOT executed a contract with KCI Technologies Inc., a Maryland firm with offices in Duluth, to serve as prime consultant on the U.S. 441 widening in Oconee and Morgan counties on Nov. 13 of last year, according to GDOT Project Manager Bruce G. Anderson Jr.
A GDOT selection committee on Feb. 6, 2015, had recommended KCI as its first choice among five bidders for engineering design services for the project, labeled P.I. #122660.
The five firms had responded to a Request for Qualifications dated Oct. 15, 2014, for the design services on seven different projects around the state
The firm that was rated as number two by the selection committee for the U.S. 441 widening work was Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc., an international engineering services firm with offices in Atlanta.
Anderson confirmed in an email to me today that KCI is the consultant for engineering design services and that Parsons Brinckerhoff is the prime consultant for updating the environmental studies for the project.
At the meeting Thursday night, there was confusion about the responsibility of these two firms.
First Task Order
At a meeting of the Sounding Board on Dec. 22, GDOT officials indicated that they had signed a Task Order with KCI for the first phase of work on the project.
Anderson sent me a copy on Jan. 5 of this year of the notice to proceed sent to KCI for Task Order 1. The letter from GDOT to KCI was dated Nov. 16, 2015.
The agreement calls for KCI to survey the existing right of way for U.S. 441 and do a traffic analysis for the route.
KCI has 24 months to complete the work with a maximum allowed compensation of $500,179.
Second Task Order
GDOT officials at the meeting on Dec. 22 indicated that work was underway on a second task order for KCI.
Anderson told me today that the second task order has not been completed.
Anderson said it takes about four months to process the task order, “so we don't anticipate it being executed until late April or early May.”
Neither Anderson nor the officials at the Dec. 22 meeting identified the scope of work of that second task order.
The video below is of the entire meeting from Thursday night.
Margaret Holt, a retired University of Georgia professor, moderated the session.
Holt has worked with the Kettering Foundation of Dayton, Ohio, on community involvement projects and said her goal was to facilitate discussion among those present.
She has participated in earlier meetings of Positively Oconee, as have I.