Saturday, October 02, 2021

Oconee County Citizens Show High Level Of Interest In Proposed Truck Bypass Linking SR 15 And U.S. 441 South Of Watkinsville

***Impact On Bishop A Concern***

Sixty people participated in two public informational meetings this week held by the federally-mandated local metropolitan planning organization MACORTS as it considers a request to launch a scoping study of a truck bypass link between SR 15 and U.S. 441 south of Watkinsville.

The first of these meeting was on Monday evening and was virtual, with 12 people participating.

On Thursday evening, 48 people turned out at the community center in Oconee Veterans Park to ask questions of MACORTS transportation planners.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is asking MACORTS to modify its 2045 Metropolitan Transportation Plan and its 2021-2024 Transportation Improvement Program to include $500,000 for a scoping study of a truck bypass.

The state Transportation Department wants to use $400,000 in federal highway funds for the scoping study, and it cannot do that unless the Policy Committee of MACORTS adds the study to its two planning documents.

No routes for any truck bypass have been identified, and the purpose of the scoping study is to identify those possible routes.

Participants at the two meeting were invited to offer comments on the proposed change in the planning documents. MACORTS will accept comments electronically until the end of the day on Monday.

Those comments will be summarized and presented to the Policy Committee for consideration before it makes a decision on the request by the Department of Transportation.

Nature Of Changes Requested

Sherry McDuffie, a transportation planner with MACORTS, began the virtual session on Monday with a brief summary of the action being considered by MACORTS.

Screen Shot From Virtual Meeting 9/27,2021

MACORTS stands for Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study. McDuffie was accompanied by Cherie Varnum, another MACORTS planner.

McDuffie told those in the virtual meeting that the Metropolitan Transportation Plan is a “fiscally constrained menu that includes all the projects that can be funded with federal funds.”

The Transportation Improvement Program “shows what GDOT will order off that menu,” McDuffie said. “This document shows where and when GDOT will spend real federal transportation funding on projects.” GDOT stands for Georgia Department of Transportation.

The scoping phase in the proposed change of documents is shown in Fiscal Year 2022, the current fiscal year.

“If this project were to move forward into preliminary engineering, and that is really where they take a deeper dive into design elements,” McDuffie said, “they would have to come through with another amendment.”

McDuffie stressed that “There are no formal alignments at this time being considered.”

In the scoping study, McDuffie said, GDOT will be “trying to figure out which ones and how many alignments might be considered moving forward.”

Citizen Comments

Chuck Hadden, a member of the Town Council of Bishop, was the first to speak after McDuffie had finished her comments, and he said “for the record,” he was opposed to bringing any more truck traffic through Bishop.

“I don’t see how diverting more truck traffic through a two-lane highway section of 441 could be a good idea,” he said.

Six of the seven people who followed Hadden and spoke had similar concerns.

Michael Azzolin said he wants a bypass around Bishop instead.

Celestea Sharp, who has written a history of Bishop, said any use of Astondale Road as the connector would threaten historic properties in Bishop, including the oldest house in the historic village and a cemetery.

She suggested Green Ferry Road as an alternative, though others noted that it does not connect to U.S. 441.

John Butler suggested that a route inside the city limits of Watkinsville be used following the roadroad tracks, which he called abandoned. (They are officially still active.)

Lisa Hockaday asked about the widening of U.S. 441.

Further Explanations

In her introductory comments, McDuffie said that “Scoping phases include some budgeting, developing the background needs assessment for this project, and all of this is done at the Georgia Department of Transportation, and figure out how many alignments they want to consider, as they would move this project forward.”

MACORTS Jurisdictional Map (In Blue)

“This just keeps GDOT from spending a whole lot of money for a project that is unbuildable from the start,” she said. “This is their way with projects that are kind of iffy to get out in front of it, start gathering some public comment early. It saves them trouble later.”

Chip Davis asked McDuffie what she thought the odds were that the project would move forward beyond the scoping study.

“These don’t happen fast,” she said. “Nothing with federal dollars ever does in transportation.”

“I’ve seen these that languish forever,” she said. “I’ve seen them disappear. I’ve seen them come to fruition. I wouldn’t give you odds.”

Next Step

McDuffie said it is important for citizens to give their public comment before the deadline at the end of the day on Monday. This can be via email or the link on the MACORTS web site.

“It is never too early to get your thoughts out there,” she said. “You don’t want to wait until GDOT has narrowed it down to two routes. That is not the time to get them your comments.

“If there is something that your community or your neighborhood or just you are passionately either for or against, you want to get that out there now,” she said.

“Now GDOT is looking at and saying, OK, we need a truck bypass that connects here to here,” McDuffie said. “We don’t know where we’re going to put that. We don’t know how many alignments we want to look at. But where are the land mines?”

McDuffie said she will summarize the comments from citizens, but they also will be sent in their entirety to the members of the Technical Coordinating Committee and the Policy Committee. GDOT has representatives on those committees.

The Technical Coordinating Committee will meet on Oct. 27 and vote to make a recommendation to the Policy Committee, which will meet on Nov. 10 to take a final vote on the changes to the MACORTS documents.

Those meetings are virtual.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell is one of the county’s two representatives on the Policy Committee. Dave Henson is the county’s citizen member on the eight-member committee.

Alternatives To Route

A truck bypass from SR 15 to U.S. 441 does not appear in any of the current MACORTS documents, and McDuffie said back in August that the GDOT request came to her unexpectedly.

Watkinsville Mayor Brian Brodrick said he has lobbied other elected officials because of the important of the project to Watkinsville.

I asked Brodrick if the state could declare SR 15 a non-truck route as an alternative to building a bypass, but Brodrick said “I don’t think they would.”

I also posed that question to County Commission Chair Daniell.

“I do not believe GDOT can restrict commercial traffic on a main state route,” he said.

“I will check with GDOT about abandoning the entire SR15 from Siloam to the 441 By-pass on the North side of Watkinsville city limits,” Daniell said. “The respective cities and counties can create no thru truck designations. That could force the traffic on SR15 onto I-20 @ Siloam and then follow 441 North.”

“I did do some investigation,” Daniell said a few days later. “It is not likely we can get something that big done. It would take agreement from multiple jurisdictions. There are a lot of factors that impact GDOT as it relates to giving up state routes.”

Daniell has said he wants GDOT to consider a bypass route that would be close to the Watkinsville city limits and might cross into the city itself.

In-Person Meeting, Video

McDuffie said that 48 people attended the meeting on Thursday night at the community center in Veterans Park.

It is not unusual for meetings of this type to attract much smaller crowds.

McDuffie began with a brief overview and then met with those present to answer their questions.

I did not attend.

I had registered for the WebEx session on Monday night but missed it by mistake.

McDuffie provided me the video below, recorded from WebEx.

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