Georgia Department of Transportation Director of Planning Toby Carr, right, discusses local transportation projects with Albany and Dougherty County officials Thursday at the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce. Carr and State Rep. Ed Rynders, left, held separate meetings with Lee and Dougherty County officials.
ALBANY, Ga. -- The Georgia Department of Transportation's director of planning told officials in Albany and Leesburg Thursday that DOT will be looking for projects that "move the needle" as the agency more closely scrutinizes "scarce resources."
Toby Carr, who replaced Todd Long as the state's transportation planning director in May of last year, was given an overview of Leesburg/Lee County's and Albany/Dougherty County's priority transportation projects during separate meetings with leaders of both communities.
State Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, invited Carr to come to the region and introduced him at both meetings.
"The reality is, we have to make do with the resources we've got," said Carr, who served as Gov. Nathan Deal's transportation policy advisor before being elevated to the planning position. "And we're going to find a way to make do. You must realize that what we'd like to do will far exceed what we're able to afford.
"The voters told us (with the recent T-SPLOST vote, which failed in nine of 12 regions of the state) they want better outcomes (from Transportation). We're going to have to make some tough choices, but my priority is using available funding to create those outcomes."
Rynders said having Carr come to Southwest Georgia to get a first-hand report on transportation issues in the region will pay benefits.
"The guy just got married (to an Albany native) and he was confirmed only a little while ago; he's still getting up to speed," Rynders said. "He'll do that. And having local officials spell out their specific needs will help him as he starts to put together the overall state transportation picture.
"The proactive approach that officials in Lee and Dougherty counties have taken in preparing transportation plans is a step in the right direction."
Lee County officials updated Carr on four projects they feel are vital to the community's future: The Leesburg North Bypass, the Westover Road Extension, a traffic signal at U.S. Highway 82 and Hickory Grove Road, and the Forrester Parkway Extension.
"We're proud to have a 20-year transportation plan in place; if you're looking for shovel-ready, we're ready," Lee County Commissioner Rick Muggridge said.
District DOT Engineer Joe Sheffield told Lee/Leesburg officials work on the North Bypass, which will help clear congestion in the city's downtown and was expected to start in June, had been moved back most likely until next year. He said guidelines dictated Army Corps of Engineers involvement.
"I'm confident that project's going to happen in a very short time," Sheffield said.
Lee County Chamber of Commerce Director Winston Oxford said the Westover Road Extension project, which will connect northwest Dougherty County's primary retail district around the Albany Mall with south Lee County's growing retail district along Ledo Road, would greatly enhance economic development in both counties.
"Work is moving along on the Prince dealership, and CarMax (the country's largest used car retailer) has purchased land on Ledo," Oxford said. "There are five other entities -- including two or three fast-food franchises -- looking out there, and one major business that we just missed out on is kicking tires again.
"That area, which is already subject to congestion, could explode extensively pretty quickly."
Lee Commission Chairman Ed Duffy called the intersection at 82 and Hickory Grove a "fatality looking to happen."
Carr said the so-called "Cuthbert Case," in which the installation of a traffic light on a highway in that small community that was well-traveled by truckers and local citizens who had grown accustomed to no light being there, forced DOT officials to stick to strict standards when considering adding traffic signals.
"Our guidelines may seem rigid, but that case is a perfect example of doing what we thought was best and having disastrous results," the planning director said. "Because drivers were accustomed to that intersection, they developed a kind of 'highway hypnosis' and often went through it without paying attention to the light. There were some horrendous accidents.
"We will continue to monitor traffic (on 82 at Hickory Grove), but we can't make that kind of decision until we know it's warranted."
Albany City Manager James Taylor acknowledged that Albany/Dougherty County's portion of the Westover Road Extension became too costly (an estimated $19 million) with the failure of T-SPLOST in the region, so he pushed for resurfacing and widening projects on portions of U.S. Highway 82 and State Highway 91 within the city limits.
"We have about $4 million (in SPLOST funds) dedicated to roads and road repairs, and we hope to grow that to around $6 or $7 million," Taylor said. "We certainly could use some help with (the two resurfacing projects), which together would cost around $3 million."
Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard, noting that engineering work had been completed on Dougherty County's 8.11-mile portion -- one of nine -- of the planned four-laning of State Highway 133 from Albany to Valdosta, said that project remains vital to all of Southwest Georgia.
"That corridor's been looked at for the last 15 years or so, and it continues to be vital to economic development and defense of this region," Sinyard said. "That project is about connectivity, about enhancing what we already have for economic development and safety."
Asked by Sinyard if there was a plan in place to bring more transportation dollars to the state, Rynders said legislators are hoping successful expansion in the districts that approved T-SPLOST measures will offer incentive for voters to reconsider the 1 percent tax in two years.
"There's an old saying: Evidence defeats disbelief," Rynders said. "I've heard consistently that if the three areas that did pass T-SPLOST show real progress, that's going to be compelling incentive for voters to reconsider. That's what we're hoping for."