Originally created 06/29/01

Costly program aids rural road conditions



ATLANTA - Georgia's 3,000 concrete trucks are going to be running overtime during the next five years as they haul materials needed to complete the state's most costly road-building project ever.

During July, Georgia officials will sign $60 million in contracts - the state's largest month of highway deal making - to kick off $8.3 billion in transportation construction. On Thursday, Gov. Roy Barnes called the five-year building program the most expensive in state history.

The program will include paving four-lane segments across rural parts of the state that together will total 623 miles - enough road to stretch from the state capital to the U.S. capital.

That will accelerate by 20 years the completion of the Governor's Road Improvement Program, first proposed by then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris in 1989.

"We know the only way we can move development into other areas of the state is to build the kinds of roads and highways that companies can use to move both products and people," Mr. Barnes said.

Nearly $2 billion will go toward the GRIP roads, something rural leaders have been requesting for years.

Mr. Barnes will be able to speed construction with borrowed money, pledged against taxpayer funds he expects the federal government will award Georgia for transportation programs in coming years. The first bonds will be sold in July. Decreasing interest rates will make the payments on those debts relatively attractive, officials say.

The remaining $4 billion in Mr. Barnes' program will go toward easing travelers' trips into and out of Atlanta. Money will go to commuter buses reaching as far away as Athens and Macon, and trains will eventually run to Macon and Cobb County.

Mr. Barnes said the metro Atlanta projects are needed to relieve congestion and provide alternatives to cars, which should address the city's air-pollution problems.

Transportation Commissioner Tom Coleman acknowledges that the scope of the program will challenge his staff and the construction industry. Department of Transportation officials met last week with 250 consulting companies that will be hired to oversee the numerous individual projects - 165 of them just to complete GRIP.

While industry insiders point to a drop-off in commercial construction as making now a good time to begin a massive building program, Mr. Coleman concedes that the doubling of the amount of state transportation spending will drive prices upward.

"Maybe you pay a little bit more to get it done sooner," he said, "but you save more money" by avoiding decades of inflation.

Safety is another reason to hasten widening of rural roads, according to Therol Brown, the executive director of the Georgia Highway Contractors Association. Four-lane roads have half the number of fatal wrecks as two-lane roads, he said.

"That alone justifies the cost," he said.

For cities such as Augusta, Savannah and Brunswick, completion of GRIP will mean quicker driving times that officials hope will lure manufacturers their way. Augusta business leaders, for example, have often lobbied state officials to complete the Savannah River Parkway to create a quicker link to the ports in Savannah.

With Atlanta's substandard air quality preventing large factories from locating there, other parts of the state hope to benefit.

Later this year, Augusta, Columbus and Macon are likely to be tagged as substandard in air quality, but Mr. Barnes said his advanced spending plan won't consume funds needed to tackle those cities' air pollution.

That was echoed by Harold Reheis, the director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

"That doesn't necessarily mean that anything needs to be done," he said.

New federal standards for cleaner cars, diesel engines and gasoline and recently imposed state restrictions on Georgia Power will solve those cities' problems, he predicted.

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.

Construction projects

State officials are expected to sign contracts worth about $60 million next month to begin an $8.3 billion, five-year road construction program. The increased pace of road-widening projects and bridge improvements announced by state officials Thursday will include several local roads and bridges.

County.........................Project

Burke.........Ga. 121/US 25 from County Road 118/354 to Ga. 24

Burke.........Ga. 121/US 25 from Waynesboro bypass to Ga. 88 in Richmond County

McDuffie......Thomson east bypass from County Road 31 to County Road 20

McDuffie......Ga. 17/10 from Ga. 43 to Washington bypass

McDuffie......Ga. 10/US 78 at Hart Creek 9.5 miles north of Thomson

McDuffie......Ga. 10/US 78 at Big Creek eight miles north of Thomson

Source: Georgia Department of Transportation