Georgia Health Sciences University plans to narrow the section of Laney-Walker Boulevard that runs through its campus from four lanes to two in a “compromise” between improving safety and maintaining access, GHSU President Ricardo Azziz said Thursday.
That effort actually began long before Azziz’s arrival. Then-Medical College of Georgia President Daniel W. Rahn, who often heard the squeal of brakes from near misses as well as a number of accidents from his office on Laney-Walker Boulevard, petitioned the Georgia Department of Transportation in 2008 to narrow the road and beautify it, and raise the crosswalks. That project was approved in 2009, Azziz said.
When Azziz became president the following year, he was petitioned by the students to make crossing Laney-Walker Boulevard safer. An Augusta Chronicle analysis last year of traffic data since 1995 turned up eight pedestrians struck by vehicles in the two-block section of Laney-Walker Boulevard between R.A. Dent Boulevard and 15th Street.
The university said 8,500 pedestrians cross the street in that two-block section every day, and it will only increase in the future. The new College of Dental Medicine building, for instance, is across Laney-Walker Boulevard from the old building it still uses for classes, forcing students to cross that section. A new Education Commons building that will service dental students as well as Medical College of Georgia students is also set to go next to the new building and force more crossings. Azziz has also expressed a need for a more “unified” campus feel.
The school first broached the plan in December 2010 when it asked the Augusta Commission to close that section in favor of a pedestrian mall that would also honor the Rev. C.T. Walker and Lucy Craft Laney.
“That prompted a significant outcry from the community and really at that point we felt that, after talking to many, many leaders in the community, that really it was best at this point not to proceed with road closure and to proceed with the original plan called for in the GDOT grant,” Azziz said. “It is a compromise and we recognize it.”
Azziz said he has talked to many community leaders about the narrowing idea and said they appreciate the compromise.
“They have been supportive of maintaining the road access open while enhancing safety,” he said. “They are as concerned as I am about student safety but they are also concerned about access. And this project, the way it is now being proposed, really is able to maintain both.”
Because it is a state-approved project and does not involve city funds, Azziz said he does not believe it needs to be approved by the commission. The university plans to begin construction in mid-December and complete it by June 2013.
Augusta Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles said he has not seen a study on the impact of the plans but it should be an improvement over current conditions.
“Anything to make it safer around there is a win-win for the community, in my opinion,” he said.
Former Laney-Walker Neighborhood Association President Stanley Hawes, who was among the first to speak out against closing the section of road, said the impact of the plan remains to be seen.
“If you reduce one lane, can it really handle the traffic flow?” he said. “People still rely on that to go that way.”
District 1 Commissioner Matt Aitken, who has yet to announce whether he’ll run again for the post, said after previous debate over closing the road the community can “go along” with the traffic-calming alternative.
“When you look at what’s going on with the university right now — with the merger, with the governor wanting to make it one of the top research universities in the nation — we’re looking for it to impact this city for years to come,” he said.
The school will still do something to honor Walker and Laney near the road, but Azziz said it will not be part of the road project.
“I think it is important to honor our community leaders in that regard,” he said. “We have deliberately not tied it to this project because we feel that would be disingenuous.”
Staff Writer Susan McCord contributed to this article.