Originally created 06/28/99

Defensive planning



The possible loss of $2.7 million in highway money has Augusta road officials keeping an eye on Atlanta to see how the loss could affect area construction projects -- while rural Georgia legislators are vowing the money won't disappear.

Richmond County traffic officials want to use federal and state dollars to help with construction to lower crash rates and improve traffic flow at a number of the county's most dangerous intersections.

But Augusta stands to lose millions under an amendment to Gov. Roy Barnes' Georgia Regional Transportation Authority bill that could penalize counties outside Atlanta rather than helping them.

"These projects could definitely be hindered," said Jim Huffstetler, Richmond County's traffic engineer. "Yes, it could affect some of the projects we have or will propose. But we don't know, yet, if it will."

Added Public Works Director Jack Murphy: "It's so preliminary, I don't think anybody around here knows."

The legislation, designed to salt equal amounts of money throughout Georgia rather than funneling it into Atlanta roadways, ended up costing outstate counties.

They would have gotten more money without the equalization because their projects would have come up for funding -- and used available money -- first.

Rural lawmakers were appalled last week when they learned of the results of the amendment. They have urged the Georgia Department of Transportation to continue funding projects that are ready -- a way to sidestep the legislation, because rural projects are ready while metro Atlanta projects are not.

"They can't spend money on projects that aren't ready, anyway," said state Sen. Don Cheeks, D-Augusta. "If a project is ready, it gets the funds. If it's not, it doesn't. That won't violate the legislation.

"And if they don't do that, you can be sure we will be there with legislation on the first day of the (Legislature's) session next year to change it."

In Richmond County, officials hope to use state and federal dollars in projects ranging from concepts to those already under way in an attempt to save local money while still reducing crashes.

"A lot of these are unfunded right now. But I've been given the task of coming up with the concepts and we're looking for the funds," Mr. Huffstetler said. "We've already talked to (district transportation board representative) Jimmy Lester, and he said `You get me some information, and I'll look for the money."'

Local roads that are also state routes include Gordon Highway and Deans Bridge, Peach Orchard and Washington roads.

Some are also federal roads, as are Interstate 20 and Bobby Jones Expressway.

Each of the county's top 10 dangerous intersections -- where 20 or more crashes happened last year -- is on at least one of those roads. Those intersections were the sites of more than 600 crashes in 1998 with almost 150 injuries, county records show.

If the projects are safety improvements, they will be exempt from the legislation, said Vicki Gavalas, spokeswoman for the state transportation department. Projects that add capacity -- a new turn lane, for instance -- are not exempted.

The balancing affects both state and federal dollars, she said.

Many of the proposed Richmond County projects are designed to update intersections that weren't built to handle the demands of traffic in the Richmond County of 1999.

Examples include the cloverleaf exits from Interstate 20 to Bobby Jones Expressway. Too many cars are trying to enter, exit or drive through in too short a space, Mr. Huffstetler said.

"That type of interchange was designed in the 1950s, the 1960s," he said. "The highway program was only initiated in the 1950s. They engineered based on the information for years prior to that -- and they'd never had a highway system.

"They only planned 20 years ahead. Which is economical -- you figure you're going to be back out there building something else by then."

Alisa DeMao covers transportation for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3223 or ademao@augustachronicle.com.