Originally created 04/02/00

Traffic plagues first day



Nearly a month ago, Augusta Regional Airport at Bush Field Director Al McDill said a larger than expected crowd at Skyfest 2000 would be a welcome problem.

On Saturday he got his wish -- and then some.

At the first day of the scheduled two-day event, long lines of traffic caused many frustrated event-goers to turn around or park alongside roads leading to the air show.

Hundreds of attendees, some with advance tickets, were also turned away when officials closed Lock and Dam Road, the only road into the air show, two hours into the show at 1:55 p.m. to comply with Federal Aviation Administration policy.

Skyfest officials had notified the media and public about the road closure, but they never gave a specific time.

Early estimates said the crowd size was about 40,000. Skyfest officials had said before the show they anticipated a crowd of 25,000 to 30,000.

"It's a problem we want to have, but it's still a problem," Mr. McDill said. "People need to get here earlier. I think a lot of people played it too close to the time."

But some said the blame for the traffic problems fall squarely on the shoulders of event organizers.

Erin Slade, a Skyfest volunteer from Evans, said the show was poorly organized.

"I pulled up to leave the gate at 2 p.m., and I didn't get out until 5:05 p.m.," she said. "I arrived at 7:30 a.m. and was on Lock and Dam Road, 60 feet from the gate, and couldn't get in until 8:40 a.m. The show was wonderful, but the organization was horrible."

Those who had tickets for Saturday's show and were turned away can use them for today's show, Mr. McDill said. But there will be no refunds, he added.

"`The tickets clearly say no refund on them," Mr. McDill said.

Traffic was a daylong problem at the air show, with a long line of vehicles waiting before the gates opened. As the morning went on, the line of traffic spilled out onto Doug Barnard Parkway and Bobby Jones Expressway.

People waited in traffic for up to two hours between 9 and 11 a.m., even when officials decided to open up the left lane of Lock and Dam road to incoming traffic. Augusta Mayor Bob Young was one of those affected by the traffic, as he was scheduled to speak at the show's opening at 11:15 a.m. but was instead sitting at the intersection of Dan Bowles Road and Doug Barnard Parkway.

"This is the first air show we've done, and people need to realize they need to get here early," Mr. Young said. "Air shows with the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds draw in the tens of thousands."

At 7:30 p.m., more than three hours after the show ended, traffic was still backed up for miles in all directions.

After the show, public safety and Skyfest officials decided that there would be a greater emphasis put on getting people in and out of the parking lot area today, said Sgt. Greg Smith of the Richmond County Sheriff's Department.

On Saturday, volunteers were mainly responsible for directing traffic into the parking lot. Sgt. Smith said there will be more deputies in the parking lot today to help direct traffic, adding there were 15 deputies at the show and 29 to 30 directing traffic.

But, he added that the dimensions of the road in and out of the show hasn't changed.

"...People need to understand that and have patience," Sgt. Smith said, adding that people who attempt to park on the side of Doug Barnard and Tobacco roads, as many did today, will not be allowed to do so.

Show organizers and city officials had said before the show that they would be able to handle attendance logistics, even if the crowd exceeded expectations. Some admitted, however, that the response from the community was just too much to handle with only one two-lane road leading to the parking area.

"It was just an enormous amount of people that wanted to come to this air show," said consultant Rick Grissam. "We were ready, but we could only get so many people into the gate from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m."`

Mr. McDill said he expected things to run smoother today, even if attendance estimates are again surpassed.

"It's going to be better today," Mr. McDill said. "The crowd will be larger, but the volunteers on staff will be more experienced."

Staff writer Faith Johnson contributed to this article.

Reach Mark Mathis at (706) 823-3227.