Westover project price soars

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY/LEESBURG, Ga. -- On May 6, 2008, Albany City Commissioners heard a proposal from engineering and planning firm GCA Inc. of Atlanta that offered a possible solution to the growing traffic nightmare that existed on Nottingham Way in Albany's northwest corner.

GCA suggested, and local engineer Ritchie Marbury with the Albany-based EMC Engineering Services firm concurred, that the extension of Westover Boulevard adjacent to the Albany Mall to Ledo Road on the Dougherty/Lee County line was the best plan to alleviate the growing traffic problem at Nottingham.

At that time, GCA's James Gray suggested that the project, which would include bridges on the Liberty Expressway to overpass the Westover extension, would come with a price tag of $9.7 million. Gray added, though, that the cost projection was in "today's dollars."

Flash forward almost three years, and the traffic congestion on Nottingham is as bad as ever. And local officials are still fighting to get the so-called Westover Extension on a state list that would allow the project to move forward. However, Gray's words from 2008 haunt the project like a specter. Its estimated cost in 2011 dollars: $20 million.

"Everything about that project that was mentioned (back in 2008) still applies," city of Albany Engineering Director Bruce Maples said Thursday. "We're still trying to get the project listed in the Transportation Investment Act so that it will be included on a state referendum for funding.

"Traffic certainly hasn't decreased (on Nottingham), and it's not going to. That's where the retail and commercial traffic is. It remains a safety issue."

When Albany's City Commission considered throwing its support behind the Westover Extension, a couple of its members expressed a desire to have Lee County officials get on board with the project.

Commissioner Tommie Postell said at the time, "This doesn't need to be one of those 'I heard' or 'so-and-so said'; we need to make sure Lee County is on board from the beginning of this project."

Commissioner Bob Langstaff took Postell's concerns a step further.

He recommended that City Attorney Nathan Davis draw up a joint resolution between the Albany and Lee County governments so that the project could be presented to the Department of Transportation as a "unified regional project."

"That's the kind of stuff (DOT) likes to see, plus I think it would show them we're serious about the project," Langstaff said.

On May 28, 2008, then-Lee County Commission Chairman Morris Leverette and Albany Mayor Willie Adams signed the joint agreement that reads, in part, "Whereas Lee County, Georgia and the city of Albany, Georgia, have determined it is (in) the best interest of the city and county to support the extension of Westover Boulevard to Ledo Road ... the extension ... is hereby formally supported by the county and city."

However, in the almost three years since the resolution was passed, Lee County has experienced a considerable growth spurt, particularly along the Lee County side of Ledo Road. That's led some Albany officials to question supporting the Westover Extension project out of fear that it will benefit Lee County at Albany and Dougherty County's expense.

That line of thinking concerns a number of area officials.

"It's amazing, but there are some in the Albany crowd who see Lee County as 'the enemy'," Lee County Chamber of Commerce Director Winston Oxford said Thursday. "They say they're concerned that the Westover Extension project will connect Dougherty shoppers with Lee County, but this thing works both ways. It also will connect Lee County shoppers with Albany and Dougherty County.

"I can't imagine any circumstance where the retailers in northwest Albany wouldn't be delighted to provide easier access to their establishments for the upscale subdivisions like Calloway Lakes and Quail Pines in the southern portion of Lee County. It takes a narrow-minded person not to see that this is a win-win for both communities."

Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard, who chairs the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission's executive board, said Thursday the Westover Extension project remains on the Dougherty/Lee Metropolitan Planning Organization's transportation list because it is still vital to both communities.

"The professionals have suggested that this project is important and it provides the most efficient opportunity to use our (transportation) dollars," Sinyard said. "It's been shown that more than 40 percent of the people who shop in Albany and Dougherty County come from outside the county, so we want to provide a transportation network that makes it easy for people to shop, visit and work here.

"All 14 of the county and city governments in our region will send their list of projects to the state, and the state will send the Regional Commission a list it thinks best meets its criteria and is most feasible. The executive committee will work to make sure the list best meets our region's needs."

Maples said if the Westover Extension project is approved by the Regional Commission for inclusion on the region's transportation list, it could move forward before costs skyrocket even higher.

"The situation's not going to change," he said. "The traffic on Nottingham is going to remain a problem. Eventually something will have to be done."

Indeed, Lee County Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander -- who previously served as head of the city of Albany's Engineering department -- said the region's long-range traffic plan shows that the amount of traffic on Nottingham will become too much for the bridge on that road by 2035 if it continues at its current rate.

"It's ironic that some Albany officials would speak out in opposition of the Westover Extension project," Alexander said. "The whole concept behind the project was to alleviate the congestion and improve the safety on Nottingham. Long-range projections show something has to be done."

Officials in the region have until March 30 to submit their traffic project requests to the Regional Commission for approval. When that group's executive committee approves the list, it will be placed on a referendum that will come before state voters July 12. If approved, the DOT will have the opportunity to move forward with the projects as funding becomes available.

"People talk about particular businesses -- like say the Olive Garden, which everyone seems to want -- coming to this area, and they're disappointed to hear that the area's matrix doesn't fit into the company's plans," Oxford said. "One thing that's a part of that matrix, though, is the number of people that live within a 5-minute or a 10-minute or a 15-minute drive of the business.

"I haven't heard anyone mention this, but improved transportation in the area is going to improve those numbers. Anyone who opposes these kinds of improvements are just misguided. Lee County is going to move forward with its transportation plan even if Dougherty County doesn't. What (some Albany officials) should realize is that anything we do to improve Lee County is going to benefit Albany as much or more."