Roadway plan eyes growth

ALBANY -- While local government officials aren't holding their collective breath awaiting funding for the 28 capital roadway projects on the newly updated 2035 Long-Range Transportation Plan put together utilizing data from the Dougherty Area Regional Transportation Study, the list was devised with just that in mind.

"You have to take this list as a snapshot in time, as it relates to right now," Eric Lusher with the Atlanta-based URS transportation planning firm said after a public hearing on the metropolitan area's LRTP Tuesday. "But the expectation is that over the course of this long-range study -- over the next 25 years -- all 28 of these projects will be funded.

"You have those expectations because we've done what the federal government requires. We've done all the things we're supposed to do."

Funding all 28 projects would run in the hundreds of millions of dollars based on today's costs, and most involved in planning for such projects admit that getting a few of them done over the next five years would be a major accomplishment.

But partly because the new chairman of the state House Transportation Committee is from Southwest Georgia and the chair of a special subcommittee on confirmation that met to approve Gov. Sonny Perdue's appointee to the vital transportation planning director position, Todd Long, is also from the region, a pair of high-profile projects on the DARTS list have been fast-tracked for DOT funding and should see design and/or construction work start in the next 12 months.

Jay Roberts of Ocilla, who was named to the Transportation chairmanship when Johnny Floyd left the House to take a position on the Transportation board, and Ed Rynders of Leesburg stressed the importance of projects outside the metro Atlanta hub in the days leading up to Long's confirmation, and shortly after Long moved into the office he made it clear that he'd gotten the South Georgia legislators' messages.

At a whirlwind meeting with region officials, Long announced that federal funding had been secured to rebuild the Broad Avenue bridge in downtown Albany, the No. 1 projects on the DARTS list, and that same day he assured Lee County officials that funding could be forthcoming for the north bypass project if DOT officials got behind a value-engineered version of the plan that reduced costs by two-thirds, from an estimated $15 million to $5.4 million.

The bypass project is the third-ranked item on the DARTS list.

"With the north bypass, a left-hand turn lane in the downtown area and an enhanced truck route on (Georgia) 32, a lot of our school traffic problem should be alleviated," Lee Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander said. "That's been recognized as our No. 1 traffic need. Each weekday during the school year the city of Leesburg's population grows from around 3,000 to around 10,000. That's a recipe for congestion."

Mary Huffstetler, president of the Macon-based MPH & Associates transportation planning firm that worked with URS to update the Albany Metropolitan Planning Organization's long-range plan, warned that prioritizing projects in the area did not necessarily mean they would receive funding any quicker.

"The significance of having projects listed on the long-range plan is that those projects are now eligible for federal funding," Huffstetler said. "As for when they might be funded, that depends on the economy -- on the funds available -- and the project's readiness.

"Project recommendations will be made on a statewide basis with consideration given the state's fiscal restraints."

Meanwhile, projects such as an extension of Westover Road that would cross the Liberty Expressway at the northwest corner of the Albany Mall to Ledo Road near the Lee County Wal-Mart -- a project that would lessen traffic congestion at the Westover/Nottingham Way intersection notorious for traffic accidents -- and the widening of Fleming Road, which runs along the southern boundary and provides the only public entrance to Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany, are seen as vital to areas projecting continued growth over the next quarter-century.

Figures provided by URS show that the population of Lee and Dougherty counties is expected to increase from its 2006 level of 127,268 to 158,804 by 2035 and the number of employees in the counties is projected to grow from 50,467 to 72,430.

"There will be continued growth in the metropolitan area, so this process is always evolving," Lusher said. "But the desire of any plan like this is to improve transportation routes to keep traffic flowing as smoothly and as safely as possible."