Lee gets Highway funding

LEESBURG -- Parents who wait in long lines mornings and afternoons while dropping off and picking up their children from Lee County schools will be among those celebrating Lee officials' announcement Thursday that help is on the way.

Lee County Commission Chair Ed Duffy, County Administrator Alan Ours and Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander jointly announced that the county had received a contract from the state Department of Transportation Thursday that will fund a number of improvements along Robert B. Lee Drive. The $1.6 million project will divert truck traffic off State Highway 32 and U.S. 19 from the downtown area and will provide a series of turn lanes that will ease traffic flow to and from county schools.

"This project is one piece of the puzzle that will help ease school traffic congestion in the downtown area," Alexander said. "We're also working to put an additional left-hand turn lane at Fourth Street downtown, and we're working with the DOT to get the North Leesburg Bypass extension project funded.

"Once those three projects are in place, the traffic situation will greatly improve."

Duffy said Lee officials and state House District 152 Rep. Ed Rynders met with state DOT Director Vance Smith and DOT Planning Director Todd Long recently to discuss the county's transportation concerns.

"Director Smith was very attentive to our needs," Duffy said. "He told us he liked this project, and we received the contract this afternoon. The cost will be around $1.6 million, $800,000 of which will come from Lee County SPLOST (special-purpose local-option sales tax) funds and the other $800,000 from the DOT.

"Rep. Rynders works diligently every day for his district, and his relationships with key House members and other state officials have allowed for the needs of his district to be expressed to state leadership. State leadership listened, and they agree with Rep. Rynders in his assessment of the district's needs. That is evidenced by the funding of this project and the Broad Avenue bridge (in Albany)."

Rynders, who was hosting Rep. Jay Roberts of Ocilla -- the House's Transportation Committee chairman -- Thursday, said the Robert B. Lee project is a "first step" in addressing Lee County's main

traffic issues.

"This project has been on the books for some time now," he said. "It should remove some of the truck traffic from the downtown Leesburg area and benefit the school traffic situation as well.

"This project, the downtown turn lane and the bypass extension are all designed to alleviate traffic congestion. It's been discussed for a while, and now it looks like it is finally coming to fruition."

Roberts praised Lee County officials for presenting a "well-thought-out plan."

"The folks in Lee County came to us with a very clear, concise plan," he said. "You have no idea how many times we're asked to consider projects without any pertinent information presented with the request.

"This is the kind of well-thought-out plan that shows true leadership."

Work included in the $1.6 million proposal includes:

n Widening, drainage, leveling and resurfacing along Robert B. Lee Drive and Lovers Lane Road;

n Six-foot bicycle lanes on either side of Robert B. Lee;

n Railroad upgrade across Robert B. Lee;

n Turn lanes at the intersection U.S. 19 and Robert B. Lee, Starksville Road and Robert B. Lee, Peach Street and Robert B. Lee, Lovers Lane and Robert B. Lee and State Route 32 at Lovers Lane; and

n Realignment of Old Stage Road and Lovers Lane at 32 to remove an offset at the intersection.

"The improvements will create a truck route from 32 to 19 that will divert truck traffic from downtown," Alexander said. "And the widening of Robert B. Lee with the addition of the turn lanes will help improve the flow of school traffic.

"Traffic will move much more quickly once turn lanes are established at Starksville and Peach and at the junctions at Robert B. Lee and U.S. 19, Robert B. Lee and Lovers Lane and at 32 and Lovers Lane."

Alexander noted that a shopping center and new housing units are planned along the southern junction of Robert B. Lee and U.S. 19. A lift station is under construction now to account for the development.

The planning director said bids on the project should go out "after the first of the year," and Ours said he is "remaining optimistic" the project will be finished by the start of the next school year.

"Work on the project is obviously going to impact traffic while construction is under way," Ours said. "However, part of a contractor's job is to complete work while traffic is taking place with a minimum negative impact. It will be inconvenient for a period, but we're focusing on the long-term benefits."