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Traffic nightmare expected with interchange project

Traffic at the U.S. 19/Jefferson Street interchange in Albany is expected to become a “nightmare” once construction begins on the $12.5 million project. Work is expected to take 2 1/2-3 years. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Traffic at the U.S. 19/Jefferson Street interchange in Albany is expected to become a “nightmare” once construction begins on the $12.5 million project. Work is expected to take 2 1/2-3 years. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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Work on the U.S. 19 Bypass bridge at Jefferson Street in Albany, which has been contracted to Albany-based Oxford Construction, will be part of a project to make that dangerous interchange safer. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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Alternate routes for morning and afternoon commuters will become the norm once work starts on the Jefferson Street/U.S. 19 Bypass interchange. Work is expected to commence in the next few weeks. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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The U.S. 19 off-ramp that exits onto Jefferson Street in Albany, is located at the end of a short stretch of 19 onto which merging traffic must quickly enter to avoid westbound traffic. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — Accepted wisdom is that progress must be paid for. Southwest Georgians can start preparing to pay a steep price in inconvenience when work begins in the next few weeks on the Jefferson Street interchange at the U.S. 19 Bypass.

The $12.5 million project, funded through state and federal Department of Transportation dollars, is expected to slow traffic on the bypass to a crawl for the estimated two and a half to three years of the project, forcing heavy morning and afternoon commuter traffic to use time-consuming detours that will divert many drivers onto two-lane roads.

“We’re going to have to be some really good neighbors to the folks driving out this way once we get this project started,” project superviser Doug Cooper of Albany-based Oxford Construction said. “We’re going to be widening (nearby) Philema (Road); we’re going to have to shut down the (on- and off-) ramps (onto the U.S. 19/Jefferson Street exchange), and traffic coming off the bypass will be diverted to a single lane.

“The work involves only nine-tenths of a mile of highway, but you also have four different (retaining) walls and two bridges involved. We’re talking about a lot of work.”

Southwest Georgia communters, especially those in heavily travelled northeast Dougherty County and southeast Lee County, lauded last year’s announcement that DOT was preparing to move forward with the interchange project. Southbound traffic on Jefferson utilizing the westbound on-ramp to get onto 19 frequently backed up as drivers sought to merge into traffic on a short, tenth-of-a-mile stretch that fed onto the southbound off-ramp. A number of collisions, some of them deadly, have occurred on the interchange, leading to DOT’s decision to expedite the project.

But commuters will have their patience tested once construction begins. And DOT officials said Tuesday that shouldn’t be too far in the future.

“We held pre-construction meetings last week, and there’s some permitting still to be completed,” the DOT’s Jill Goldberg said. “But there are things the construction company (Oxford) can do to start getting ready. They want to be in a position where the second we get final approval, they can get started.”

Oxford has already set up construction trailers in the vacant lot on the northern side of Philema where it intersects with Jefferson, and Cooper said the 15 or so subcontractors hired by Oxford to work on the project will start bringing in crews once environmental and other permits are obtained by DOT.

“One of the biggest conflicts we’ll have is with utilities,” the Oxford project manager said. “Just about everyone — Water, Gas & Light, AT&T, Georgia Power — has lines they’ll have to move. We’ve already had three utility meetings, and I’m sure we’ll have them weekly to coordinate everything that has to be done.

“We’ve got grading to do, and work on those bridges … but that’s actually the easy part. The traffic and moving those utilities … that’s going to be a nightmare.”