Friday, November 12, 2021

MACORTS Approves Scoping Study Request For Truck Bypass South Of Watkinsville After Challenge From Oconee Citizen Representative

***Approval Allows For Review Of Routes North Of Bishop***

The MACORTS Policy Committee meeting on Wednesday morning took an unusual turn when Oconee County’s citizen representative said it was his intention to vote against a request for a scoping study of a truck bypass linking SR 15 and U.S. 441 south of Watkinsville.

Dave Henson said his goal was to keep the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) from considering any route that put additional traffic on U.S. 441 through Bishop.

Henson said he had read citizen feedback on the proposed scoping study and had gotten additional input directly, and, reflecting that feedback, was adamant that Astondale Road not be considered as a route.

A representative of GDOT as well as MACORTS staff said that the proposed scoping study, which will use federal money, could include routes north of Bishop only if the Policy Committee approved the request.

The Policy Committee then voted unanimously to incorporate the proposed scoping study into MACORTS planning documents and to allocate $400,000 in federal highway monies toward the $500,000 study.

GDOT Request

In August, Sherry McDuffie, MACORTS coordinator, said that she had received email from GDOT requesting that a scoping study of a truck link between SR 15 and U.S. 441 be added to MACORTS planning documents.


McDuffie said at that time that scoping studies are usually part of the engineering phase of a project and are not launched independently and that she had no explanation for the timing of the GDOT request.

“I’m not sure specifically what happened with this exact project to put the scoping in now,” SueAnne Decker, pre-construction engineer at GDOT, told the Policy Committee at its meeting on Sept. 8 when asked about the timing.

In response to the GDOT request, the MACORTS Policy Committee set up a virtual meeting on Sept. 27 and an in-person meeting on Sept. 30 to receive citizen feedback.

Citizens were asked to respond to the GDOT request to add the scoping study to the MACORTS FY 2021-2024 Transportation Improvement Program and its 2045 Metropolitan Transportation Plan.

MACORTS is one of 16 federally mandated Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) in Georgia and has responsibility for planning for federal highway spending in the urbanized parts of Oconee, Clarke, and Madison counties as well as tiny pieces of Jackson and Oglethorpe counties.

Since GDOT said it plans to use federal funding for the scoping study, MACORTS must add the scoping study to its transportation planning documents and designate monies for the costs of the study before the study can begin.

MACORTS is the acronym for Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study.

Henson’s Comments

At the meeting on Wednesday, McDuffie provided a written summary of the comments from the 47 people who had responded to the request for feedback and reminded the Policy Committee members that she also had provided them with all of the comments as she had received them.

John Daniell, chair of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners, who also served as chair of the Policy Committee for the year, then called for discussion of the scoping study request. The meeting was held virtually.

Discussion at Policy Committee meetings normally is very limited, and GDOT requests are routinely approved.

“I have a few feedback comments and then a question for clarity,” Henson said in response to Daniell.

“First of all, I received feedback from a few residents--two households to be exact-- in the Greene Ferry Road area that are adamantly opposed to using Greene Ferry Road for the bypass,” he said.

“Instead, they believe that an extension of Flat Rock Road would have fewer residential impacts, including fewer displacements, and be an ideal solution,” he continued.

“And secondly, as you know,” Henson said, “we received a ton of great community feedback, and there is strong, unanimous opposition to using Astondale Road for the bypass.

“Also, there is strong opposition to adding truck traffic through Bishop, along 441 from Georgia 186 to Astondale Road,” Henson said.

MACORTS Boundaries

The boundaries of the MPOs in the state are determined by population density, and most areas of the state outside of Atlanta are not in an MPO. Only the northern part of Oconee County is in the MACORTS MPO boundaries.

Area North Of Blue Line Is In MACORTS
(Click To Enlarge)

SR 186, or High Shoals Road, forms the southern boundary of MACORTS' jurisdiction at that point in the county.

Henson said his question was: “Will the area south of Georgia186, including Bishop and Astondale Road, also be studied for this same truck bypass?

“If the answer is yes,” he said, “I cannot support the study of this truck bypass.”

Henson said he would not support consideration of “using Astondale Road” or any route that adds “more traffic through Bishop.”

“Turning left from Price Mill Road and High Shoals Road onto northbound 441 is already far too dangerous,” Henson said.

“These intersections need immediate attention as it is,” Henson said, “so I will not support any project that could add to the traffic volume on 441 until after these intersections have been properly addressed.”

Response to Henson

The Policy Committee consists of eight voting members, including Daniell, Kelly Girtz, mayor of Athens-Clarke County, Todd Higdon, chair of the Madison County Board of Commissioners, a representative of the University of Georgia, and a representative of GDOT.

Each county–Oconee, Athens-Clarke, and Madison--also has a citizen representative.

The Oconee County citizen representative is appointed by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners, and Benson was appointed on April 7, 2020.

Benson lives just north of Bishop off High Shoals Road and works in information technology security.

Radney Simpson, chief of the GDOT Urban Area Planning Bureau, an alternate on the MACORTS Policy Committee, was representing GDOT at the meeting on Wednesday.

Simpson told Henson that no alignments are under consideration at this point and that the request is to allow GDOT to use federal funds to study routes within the MACORTS boundaries as well as further south in the county.

Without the approval of MACORTS, he said, only the areas south of the MACORTS boundary could be considered.

Parameters Of Scoping Study

McDuffie said that the scoping phase actually does not include a determination of a route.

In the scoping phase, GDOT will set up the project parameters, she said, and determine what would be required to continue the development of the project.

During the scoping phase, according to McDuffie, GDOT could identify how many routes might be examined.

McDuffie said that the subsequent phase of the project, Preliminary Engineering, would include a narrowing down and eventual choosing of an alignment.

At this point, she said, GDOT was only asking for authorization to spend federal monies on a scoping phase.

If GDOT considers a route within the MACORTS boundaries and wants to spend federal money in a Preliminary Engineering phase, McDuffie said, it would have have to come back through the MACORTS process.

At that point, MACORTS will seek additional public comment, McDuffie said.

Under these circumstances, Henson agreed to support the GDOT request, which passed unanimously without further discussion.

Note On Video

MACORTS meeting, held on WebEx, normally are video recorded.

The discussion above was inadventently not included in the recording of the Wednesday meeting.

Henson had written out his comments and provided them to me after the meeting.

I participated in the entire meeting on Monday as an observer.

I reconstructed the discussion following Henson’s comments from my notes and from notes provided me by McDuffie.

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