Oconee County Public Works Director Emil Beshara will get a third opportunity on Wednesday to include construction of a multi-grade intersection at SR 316 and the Oconee Connector in the planning documents of the regional metropolitan transportation planning organization.
Beshara calls improvements to the intersection the number one priority for the county and has pointed out that the Oconee County Citizen Advisory Board for Land Use and Transportation Planning has said the same.
Beshara’s request to heighten the priority assigned to the SR 316 and Connector intersection will be before the Technical Coordinating Committee of the Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study again on Wednesday morning.
The group meets at 10 a.m. in the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department Auditorium at 120 W. Dougherty Street in Athens.
Nature Of Request
Beshara asked the Technical Coordinating Committee at its meeting on Jan. 27 of this year to amend the MACORTS 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan to add the improvements to the SR 316 and Oconee Connector.
MACORTS is the federally mandated transportation planning body for the urbanized part of Oconee County, and road projects that use federal funds have to be listed in MACORTS planning documents.
The interchange upgrade had been part of a package of interchange upgrades along SR 316, Beshara said, and he wanted the interchange with the Connector listed as a separate project in the MACORTS document so it can be addressed more quickly.
Kyle Mote from the Georgia Department of Transportation Planning Office said the project already had a distinct number in GDOT planning files and separating it for planning purposes was not a problem.
Sherry McDuffie, MACORTS planner, said that the project, with an estimated cost of $18 million, could be added to the MACORTS Long Range Transportation Plan only if projects costing that same amount were removed.
Beshara’s solution was simple. He proposed removing improvements to Union Church Road from the 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan and reducing the amount of funding for Mars Hill Road Widening Phase III.
Union Church Road runs from Hog Mountain Road to Bishop. The MACORTS documents list increasing the width of the road, building a roundabout at New High Schools Road, and adding sidewalks. The cost of the project is a little more than $15 million.
Mars Hill Road Widening Phase III is for that section of Experiment Station Road from the Watkinsville U.S. 441 Bypass to Main Street in downtown Watkinsville.
The total cost listed in the MACORTS planning document for the project is $8.4 million, and Beshara’s proposal was to remove $3 million from that total.
The cut would come from construction funding and would not affect engineering and right of way acquisition.
The Technical Coordinating Committee adopted Beshara’s proposal at the January meeting unanimously, sending it to the MACORTS Policy Committee for approval.
BOC Chairman Davis is on the MACORTS Policy Committee, and he received a copy of the proposed change in the plans on Feb. 1 with the agenda for the Policy Committee meeting on Feb. 10, email records I received from an open records request indicate.
As the Policy Committee was assembling at the Madison County government offices in Danielsville on Feb. 10, Davis summoned McDuffie to come to where he was seated at the table.
It isn't possible to hear what McDuffie and Davis are talking about, and she leans over and whispers to Davis at one point to make sure the camera could not pick up the conversation. McDuffie at one point makes referencing to cuts in funding of projects, and Davis' irritation is clear.
When the discussion turned to the SR 316 and Oconee Connector intersection during the meeting, Davis said he supported the interchange improvements but was concerned about the reduction of the Mars Hill Road Phase III funding.
He asked that the item be sent back to the Technical Coordination Committee for further discussion.
Bob Sanders is the Oconee County citizen representative on the MACORTS Policy Committee, and he also serves on the Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning.
The Land Use Committee voted in April of 2015 to designate the construction of a multigrade interchange for the Oconee Connector and SR 316 intersection as the most pressing road project in the county.
Sanders said not a word when Davis objected to changes in the MACORTS documents that would have reflected what the citizen advisory committee had recommended, and the Policy Committee voted unanimously to send the matter back to the Technical Coordinating Committee.
The MACORTS Policy Committee meeting was at 10 a.m. in the government offices in Danielsville, the seat of Madison County.
At 2:57 p.m. that day, Davis sent an email to the four voting commissioners complaining of Beshara’s proposal.
“While I am supportive of an interchange at 316/Oconee Connector,” Davis wrote, “I was not aware that the other projects would be proposed to be eliminated from the 2020-2014 plan. (The typo is in the original.)
“Since I was not sure the Mayor of Watkinsville was aware of this potential. I requested this plan be again reviewed by the TCC group for additional study and recommendations for funding. The Policy Council supported this request.
“Since returning from the Policy Council meeting, I met with Mayor Ivie to share with him the discussion during the MACORTS Policy Council meeting. He was not aware of this proposal,” Davis wrote.
Charles Ivie is the mayor of Watkinsville.
Davis copied Beshara on his email to the commissioners, and Beshara responded at 3:59 p.m. on Feb. 10.
“There appears to be some misunderstanding on this,” Beshara wrote. “Mars Hill Phase 3 was not proposed to be eliminated altogether, rather the funding for construction only was recommended to be removed from the 2020-2024 period.
“Engineering and right of way acquisition were left intact during that timeframe. There is no change to the schedule for PE and right of way, which are likely the only activities that could occur during that time anyway.
“The inclusion of full construction funding in this narrow time window was not practical,” Beshara wrote.
PE stands for project engineering.
According to Beshara’s email, the Union Church Road project was added to the MACORTS’ plan only because that was required when the county listed it for funding under the failed Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax initiative.
It is not a priority over the SR 316 interchange, he said.
“We needed $3M to balance, so it was proposed to re-allocate $3M from the Mars Hill Phase 3 project because it is unlikely that it would require any construction funding during the 2020-2024 band,” Beshara wrote.
“The remainder of construction funding, as well as all of the PE and right of way funding, were left intact,” he wrote.
Beshara In February
The Technical Coordinating Committee met on Feb. 24, and Beshara again made the case for the multi-grade intersection of SR 316 and the Oconee Connector as the top county road problem.
He said that the interchange was the “number one priority of any road in the county” from the perspective of the Public Works Department, as the video below indicates.
David Clark, Beshara’s counterpart in Athens-Clarke County, agreed that the project deserves designation as a transportation problem that affects the urbanized area.
Clark and Beshara said they would try to find another place in MACORTS projects where $3 million could be reallocated so that the $18 million needed to include the project in the 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan can be identified.
The Technical Coordinating Committee only makes recommendations, and the Policy Committee will have to take final action on the recommendation, which also will require public comment.
Appointments For Life
Sanders is the citizen representative on the Policy Committee, and he has a counterpart on the Technical Coordinating Committee.
The counterpart’s name is Bruce Clarke. MACORTS records indicate he was at one time also a member of the county’s Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use And Transportation Planning, though he is not at present.
MACORTS documents indicate Clarke did not attend any of the six meetings of the Technical Coordinating Committee last year, and he has not attended either of the two held this year.
On the Oconee County web site, the terms of both Sanders and Clarke for the MACORTS appointments are listed as “non-expiring.”
The video of the meetings of the MACORTS Policy Committee and Technical Coordinating Committee are on the MACORTS Channel of the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.
Sarah Bell and I teamed up to record these meetings.