Originally created 09/19/00

Highway hazards worry counties



ATHENS, Ga. - University of Georgia senior Shannon Makaila had no reason to think a June trip down Georgia Highway 316 would be anything more than routine.

She was wrong.

As she drove through Barrow County on her way back to Athens from Duluth, a woman made a left turn through a median and smacked Ms. Makaila's car on the driver's side door.

Ms. Makaila has recovered well from her accident.

She completed physical therapy and is mostly healed. She aims to finish her political science degree and attend law school next year.

Many people involved in wrecks along the corridor through Oconee, Barrow and Gwinnett counties have fared much worse than Ms. Makaila.

In Barrow County alone, there already have been eight fatalities on Highway 316 this year - the most ever on that highway in Barrow. The Transportation Department estimates there have been 42 fatal accidents on 316 since it was completed in 1995.

"I was driving in an unmarked car on the highway the other night, and, my God, people drive very aggressive, very fast (on the highway)," said Capt. Barry Malleck, commander of the Barrow County Sheriff's Department patrol and investigation divisions.

Law enforcement officers such as Capt. Malleck blame the accidents on high-speed drivers and the fact that the highway has the deceiving appearance of an interstate.

Although the Transportation Department plans to make the highway a limited-access corridor, budget constraints mean the transformation will not be completed until 2015 at the earliest, according to DOT spokeswoman Terri Pope.

Barrow County Commission Chairman Eddie Elder said landowners are becoming impatient and want to develop their lots along the corridor.

"The property values in Barrow County (along the corridor) have gone from $5,000 an acre not too long ago, to anything from $50,000 or better. Every time the land changes hands, it doubles. If this is not upgraded pretty soon, it never will, because if all those areas develop, it will be too late (to make the interstate-style upgrades)," Mr. Elder said.

But the DOT says budget constraints prevent a shorter time line. The department puts the cost of upgrading Highway 316 at between $600 million and $1 billion. But Mr. Elder, who wants the project completed by 2007 or 2008, said costs likely will exceed that amount if completion is prolonged until 2015.

Mr. Elder said that until access to Highway 316 is limited, his county hopes to exercise safety measures such as beefing up law enforcement, reducing the speed limit and launching an educational campaign about the highway's hazards.

Highway deaths

Georgia Highway 316, the mainline for motorists traveling between Athens and Atlanta, has a reputation for danger. Here's the breakdown from the state Department of Transportation and law enforcement agencies along the corridor. Fatalities by year:

Gwinnett County

1995: 1

1996: 4

1997: 3

1998: 6

1999: 9

2000 to date: 2

Barrow County

1995: 0

1996: 6

1997: 3

1998: 1

1999: 1

2000 to date: 8

Oconee County

1995: 0

1996: 0

1997: 1

1998: 0

1999: 0

2000 to date: 0

Source: Georgia Department of Transportation