Local residents took a close look Thursday evening at state plans to widen Georgia Highway 67 between Statesboro and Interstate 16. Voters’ rejection of the recent TSPLOST referendum casts some doubt on the $40 million project’s timing.
A list before the July 31 vote on the 1 percent transportation sales tax showed the Highway 67 widening, with a $42.9 million price tag, as one of four major projects proposed for Bulloch County. Then voters in the Coastal Regional Development Commission district rejected TSPLOST, while only three of Georgia’s 12 regional districts approved it.
But the Georgia Department of Transportation is taking scheduled steps toward a 2017 construction bid for the Highway 67 project on a prediction that money will be available. Eight or more GDOT employees came to Bulloch County’s North Main Annex to answer questions during the three-hour project information open house.
Actual construction is now projected to cost roughly $25 million. Design changes will yield some savings, but right-of-way purchases, utility line relocation and engineering will still bring the total cost to about $40 million, GDOT project manager David Moyer said. Federal fuel tax funds are to cover 80 percent of the cost, requiring the other 20 percent from state sources.
“We have funding programmed to start the right-of-way acquisition, and we have tentative funding shown to start the construction,” Moyer said. “The state transportation plan is more fixed funding, and it shows for the next three years, and beyond that it’s a little bit more flexible.”
He emphasized that, from GDOT’s viewpoint, the project is moving forward as scheduled. Right-of-way acquisition is slated to be funded in fiscal 2015. Buying all the property will likely take two to three years, Moyer said.
Money for state road projects comes from several funding pools, some of which are subject to annual legislative approval, he noted. Referring to the TSPLOST legislation by its other acronym, “TIA,” for the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, Moyer acknowledged that the referendum’s failure adds some uncertainty.
“TIA would have made it a lot more definite that we have funding available for it,” he said.
The officials set up eight maps on easels lined up to display the 10.86-mile route in detail. Eight identical maps were spread flat on tables for easy viewing.
From where the wider highway segment currently ends south of Burkhalter Road, Highway 67 is to be widened to at least four lanes to just south of the I-16 interchange. Some sections will have five lanes with a center turn lane.
Although this sounds contradictory, officials explained that the five-lane sections will be narrower than the four-lane sections. While the four-lane stretches include a 32-foot grassed median, the five-lane segments are all pavement, and the center turn lane is only is only 14 feet wide. So engineers have tried to place the five-lane sections in areas where the wider highway would come closest to historic properties, GDOT design engineer Rebecca Thigpen said.
“We tried our best to minimize to five-lane sections where we could,” she said. “We had several historical properties on this 11-mile stretch where we had to go with a five-lane section, so we try to avoid those properties.”
A state survey of the entire route identified 30 properties as historic, meaning they are more than 50 years old and eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. All are houses except for the Harville Baptist Church Cemetery, which is some distance outside the highway right-of-way. No historic homes will have to be moved or torn down, GDOT project historian Sharman Southall said.
“I think the designers and the engineers have done a great job of avoiding everything so far,” she said. “Now later on, when we start looking at archeology, something might bubble up, but right now, this alignment is pretty good for history.”
Some newer buildings might be displaced, Southall added. As in all such projects, the state will have to pay owners for affected property, either by settling on an appraised price or through a court condemnation process if the price is contested.
One five-lane section would pass through the Denmark community, where there are historic and commercial properties identified.
With Highway 67 forming part of a designated Statewide Bicycle Route, the design also incorporates a 6.5-foot paved shoulder in rural sections and 4-foot marked bike lanes in the sections with curb and gutter.
The Department of Transportation furnished a court reporter to record spoken comments from the public, but none were received in the first two hours of the open house. Written comments also were invited, and the department will accept them by mail through Aug. 30
Forty-eight people from Bulloch County attended the open house, GDOT communications officer Jill Nagel said.
Sophie Bunce lives in the Hagan-Meeks-Bunce House, built in 1887 and identified as eligible for the historic register although not yet on it. A design change that narrows the route in front of the house will allow the right-of-way to take less of her yard, but it will still take some. She said she had learned that federal regulations require a wide median of one sort or another on the federally funded project.
“Otherwise, I would not have understood why we would be taking good farmland and permanently putting it into a median,” Bunce said. “Another concern is just the increase in noise. They’re going to be moving the road quite a bit closer to my house, and so I would like to see how they’ll address that.”
She suggested that a noise barrier might be a possibility and said the state officials had answered her questions kindly. Her family owns a substantial amount of property on both sides of the highway.
“We’ve never been ones to stand in the way of progress, and we understand the road needing to be widened,” Bunce said.
Several other residents approached at the open house had questions about right-of-way or noise, but none expressed outright opposition to the project.