Monday, September 13, 2021

Close-In Route On Watkinville South Side To Be Considered By GDOT For SR 15 Bypass To U.S. 441

***Public Hearings On Scoping Study Set***

The Georgia Department of Transportation will review possible routes just south of Watkinsville for a truck bypass to link SR 15 and U.S. 441.

Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz and Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell made fleeting references to close-in routes for a bypass at the Wednesday meeting of the MACORTS Policy Committee.

Daniell has confirmed that routes on the city’s south side are under review and that the routes may include property inside the city limits of Watkinsville itself.

Discussion of a bypass is in the very early stage, but the Policy Committee approved adding a scoping study of the bypass to its planning documents, a first step in launching review of possible routes.

Before the study can be added to the documents, however, citizen input is required.

The first public meeting on the addition of the scoping study to the MACORTS planning documents will be virtual from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 27 via WebEx. Citizens wishing to be informed of access can contact MACORTS.

The second will be in-person from 5 to 7 p.m. on Sept. 30 at Oconee Veterans Park, 3500 Hog Mountain Road, west of Butler’s Crossing.

Policy Committee Meeting

The MACORTS Policy Committee met virtually on Sept. 8 to respond to the recommendation of the MACORT’s Technical Coordinating Committee regarding the bypass.

Girtz With Agenda Items

As the request of the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), the Technical Coordinating Committee recommended on Aug. 25 adding the scoping study to the MACORTS FY 2021-2024 Transportation Improvement Program and its 2045 Metropolitan Transportation Plan.

Federal funding will be used on the project, GDOT has indicated, requiring MACORTS to add the scoping study to its transportation planning documents before any work can begin.

MACORTS is the federally mandated metropolitan planning organization serving Oconee, Clarke, and Madison counties. MACORTS stands for Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study.

No specific routes have been proposed at this point, and the public hearings will simply be on whether the MACORTS documents should be modified to allow the project scoping study to go forward with federal funds.

The changes in the plans show $400,000 in federal funds and $100,000 in state funds being used for the scoping study.

The Technical Coordinating Committee and Policy Committee will have to vote on the modifications after receiving public comment.

Route Options

The pages to be added to the two planning documents do not specify any route, though the only road currently connecting SR 15 and U.S. 441 shown on the map incorporated into those documents is Astondale Road, which runs from SR 15 to U.S. 441 south of Bishop.

That road has been mentioned frequently as the possible route for a bypass to alleviate truck traffic from downtown Watkinsville.

“We’ve been looking at this--getting a bypass over to 441--for a while,” Oconee Commission Chair Daniell said at the meeting last week.

“Most of the time the alignments been looked is at outside the MACORTS area,” he continued. MACORTS only has responsibility for the northern, urbanized part of the county. Bishop is not part of that area.

“There are some issues with some of those,” Daniell continued. “You know, there’s an issue with Bishop, how is that going to be impacted by the 441 widening, and sending traffic into Bishop without that figured out is problematic.

“With the increase in truck traffic coming up 15,” he continued, “I think it is important to take a look at a different possibility of an alignment through to get back over to 441.”

“I also appreciate, from visuals provided, that this isn’t a far, far out bypass,” Mayor Girtz said in response to Daniell. “But it’s one that sort of hugs the edge of the city limits.”

Follow To Meeting

I sent Girtz an email following the meeting and asked him to elaborate on his comment about the route.

“I was distinguishing the proposed route between SR15 and HWY441 as being relatively close to Watkinsville, vs. some of these similar bypasses elsewhere that carve through large swaths of rural land,” he wrote.

I also sent an email to Daniell, who responded by saying “GDOT will review possible routes for a truck by-pass North of Flat Rock Road. Such a route may include property within Watkinsville city limits.”

I also asked Girtz what “visuals” he was referring to in his comment, but he has not responded. Girtz is the chair of the Policy Committee and ran the virtual meeting last Wednesday.

Daniell said “I don't recall the packet containing any draft routes.”

Sherry McDuffie, MACORTS and Athens-Clarke County transportation planner, said her office had not sent out any documents showing a route.

“We intentionally did not mark any alignment on the map since we don't know of any specifics,” she said.

Origin Of Request Questioned

Cherie Varnum, associate transportation planner with MACORTS and Athens-Clarke County, presented the GDOT request and the recommendation of the Technical Coordinating Committee for the document modification to the Policy Committee at the meeting last week.

Sara Beresford, chair of the Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission, asked “Why is it coming up now?” in reference to the GDOT request. Beresford is the Athens-Clarke citizen representative on the Policy Committee.

McDuffie said at the Technical Coordinating Committee meeting that she received email from GDOT requesting that the scoping study be added to the agenda for that group’s August meeting.

McDuffie said scoping studies are usually part of the engineering phase of a project and are not launched independently.

“Typically, we don’t see this scoping stage,” Varnum said in response to Beresford. “This was requested by GDOT for us to place into the MTP and TIP. So we are doing this at the request of their request.”

GDOT Response

“Maybe I can help, SueAnne Decker, who is with the GDOT, District 1 Office in Gainesville, responded.

Decker With Public Comment Schedule
(Click To Enlarge)

“So what we have been experiencing with especially major new alignment projects is we have to come up with several different alternatives,” she said.

“GDOT has an acronym for that,” she said. “It’s called a PAR–Practical Alternatives Report.

“So this is just a way for us to identify potential right of way impacts, potential environmental impacts, and then come up with several alignments,” she said.

The next step would be to show those alternatives “to the public to get feedback,” she said.

“That way, when we start the actual design process and we’re going through and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on surveying and environmental surveying and all of that and trying to put a pen to paper, we have a better idea of how to direct all of that money,” she continued.

“So this helps us put all of those stakeholders together,” she said. “It helps us in understanding the challenges we’re going to have with the project before we actually start designing the project.”

Push For More On Origins

“Did something happen?” Beresford persisted.

“I’m not sure specifically what happened with this exact project to put the scoping in now,” Decker said.

“But, from our experience, this scoping phase assists us as we move forward into PE,” Decker continued. PE is from project engineering.

“So I just know it is not a practice we’ve always done,” she continued, “but this project was oodles and oodles of years old, and this has been in long range for ever and ever.

“As we are refreshing and pulling those projects back in you’re going to see these scoping phases sort of pop up as a way of helping us direct how much money we need to put in these projects and what directions they need to go in,” she said.

Watkinsville Mayor Brodrick

Watkinsville Mayor Brian Brodrick did not attend the Policy Committee meeting, though he had attended the Technical Coordinating Committee meeting in August and told that group how important the bypass was to the city. He is not a regular attendee of those meetings.

I talked to Brodrick by telephone on Saturday and I told him that Beresford had asked about the timing of the request. I said Decker had said she didn’t know the answer. I asked Brodrick what he could add to explain that.

“I don’t know the specifics,” Brodrick said. “I will tell you I’ve tirelessly advocated for it in every conversation that I’ve had. I’ve not been shy in advocating for it wherever I’ve gone.”

“But there’s probably been the realization that there is pressure on this,” he said. “Watkinsville sent a letter to GDOT saying here’s some things we could use your help on.”

Included in the list was a truck bypass, he said.

“I haven’t been shy about sharing my perspective with other elected officials,” he said.

“The Council really sees this as an incredibly important step towards helping to remove that nonlocal traffic from downtown, which is a big goals for us,” Brodrick said.

I also sent an email to Rep. Marcus Wiedower, who represents most of the county in the General Assembly, asking him what role, if any, he played in moving the project forward. He did not respond.

Local Traffic

I also asked Brodrick about routes for the bypass.

“I really don’t know a lot about routes,” he said. “I can look at a map like anybody else can and draw a squiggly line on it. But I want to be totally route agnostic and let GDOT do what they need to do.”

I asked Brodrick specifically about routes close to the city line.

“It is really easy for nonprofessionals to say this is something that could work,” he said, “but when you start looking at the environmental situation, looking at waterways and history and other things, roads get real complicated.”

“I’d love to see if they could find one that doesn’t have to work around Bishop,” he said. “That’s sort of the engineers and GDOT’s homework to determine what could work.”

Brodrick said he was just happy that the project was moving forward.

“It is absolutely critical for the health of Watkinsville that we reduce the number of trucks and through traffic from south Georgia through our community."

Local Truck Traffic

Brodrick said that LAD trucking, on Barnett Shoals Road just outside downtown, does not generate a lot of truck traffic.

“At least half of their trucks don’t even come into Watkinsville,” he said.

He said the expansion of the LAD facility underway will not change that much.

“I don’t know that it’s going to increase truck traffic per se,” he said.

“The majority of the traffic that does come in and out of Watkinsville is out of town traffic–through trucks,” he said.

“There is a little bit from Athens Seed, and some from LAD truck lines,” he said.

And Wire Park, the mixed use project next door to LAD trucking, also will add some delivery truck traffic, Brodrick said.

Video

The video below is from WebEx and was made available to me by McDuffie an Varnum.

Discussion of the scoping study starts at 3:56 in the video.

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