Newton County Commission Chairman Keith Ellis proposed an aggressive and ambitious series of road projects designed to ease congestion in the western half of the county Tuesday, but he didn’t get the immediate support he wanted.
Instead, the commissioners voted to table the projects until their Sept. 16 meeting — which Ellis said pushes dangerously against the October deadline to get the plans to the Atlanta Regional Commission, which is administering the more than $116 million in road money available for central Georgia from the federal government.
“You never know when federal money is going to come down the pike,” said Ellis, except right now. “We’ve got it coming.”
Ellis said officials were given a heads up three months ago that the money might be available then heard just two weeks ago that it will be. That gave them little time to put together a list of applicable projects and virtually no time left to get plans for them together, thus Tuesday’s please-pass-this request to the commission.
Ellis, new County Manager Tom Garrett and county staffers have plans for four specific projects: Three along Brown Bridge Road and the interchange of Crowell Road and Interstate 20. If passed, the total cost to the county would be $2.1 million; the feds, through ARC, would pay $8.4 million.
“We feel like the taxpayers (would) benefit in a tremendous way,” Ellis said.
All local funding would come from the 2011 SPLOST, which has enough money uncommitted, Ellis said.
Here’s a look at the four specific projects Ellis wants funded:
• Crowell Road at I-20: Put simply, there are 23 traffic lights at the busy intersection. The project would relocate the access or frontage road south, decreasing the number of signals and increasing the area’s traffic capacity. Ellis said he and county staffers have met with DOT officials three times about this issue: “We feel pretty good about that one.” The cost would be $3,080,000, with the county fielding $616,000 of that through SPLOST.
• Brown Bridge Road at the Yellow River: In April 2013, the county paid $30,000 for a study of the bridge, which was built in 1961 and is showing its age. Ellis said an average of 9,480 cars use the bridge each day, and the bridge is rated 22 percent on the state’s 100 percent sufficiency scale. That’s not good. The cost would be $4,829,090 to replace the bridge, with the county paying $965,818.
• Brown Bridge Road at Snapping Shoals Creek: Built in 1963, the bridge carries an average of 7,000 cars per day. Again, not good. The cost to replace it would be $2,518,000 altogether, with the county picking up $503,600 through SPLOST.
• Brown Bridge Road corridor study: Engineers would study ways to lessen the traffic backup on the 4.7 miles of road from the Covington city limits west. That might include turn lanes, Ellis said, “anything to eliminate any of (the road’s many) chokepoints.” The study would cost $125,000, with $25,000 coming from the county.
Ideally, Ellis said, the county could tackle its biggest traffic problem and widen Salem Road. But studies have estimated that cost at $25 million to $30 million. Best to tackle the smaller stuff with money that’s actually available, he said, adding that all four proposed projects could take some of the burden off Salem Road.
With that, Ellis asked for approval. And the commission hit the brakes.
Commissioner John Douglas said he was a “little bit uncomfortable” with the Crowell Road/I-20 plan, which calls for what he called a “horseshoe” access road far south of its current location. That would require condemnations and the use of eminent domain. He said the problem could be partially solved just by synchronizing stoplights at the interchange.
Ellis said the DOT has said the stoplights are too close together.
Douglas asked if the DOT hadn’t put them up in the first place.
Ellis said they had.
“The DOT put ’em up there and now they’re saying they’re too close together?”
It was one of the lightest moments in an otherwise dark evening.
Ellis, smiling, said Gresham Smith Partners has recommended the realignment of the interchange as “the very best option,” and the local DOT commissioner has said he supports it.
Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she didn’t want to postpone a vote on the projects because chamber of commerce officials have told her businesses are already concerned about traffic at the interchange. If federal money is available to fix it, she said, the county should apply for it.
“It’s critical” to fix the interchange, she said. “We don’t want to take any chance that we might miss out on this money.”
But Commissioner Levie Maddox correctly pointed out that ARC has said the deadline for applications is October, with no precise date announced. He said commissioners needed a bit more time to study the projects as proposed before spending county money.
“Personally, I don’t feel like I have enough information on this, enough clarity,” he said.
Douglas said a vote Tuesday night would be a “first step, no going back.
“I don’t see any point in spending any money right now until we know for sure what we’re going to do.”
Schulz asked Garrett if the county could complete the applications if the commissioners delayed approval until their Sept. 16 meeting. Garrett said he served at the county’s behest. So Schulz made a motion to table the plans until the 16th; it passed unanimously.