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Interchange project long overdue

Oxford Construction Co. crews have already started clearing land at a former park-and-ride at the junction of Jefferson Street and Philema Road as part of a $14 million redesign of the dangerous Jefferson/Liberty Expressway interchange. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Oxford Construction Co. crews have already started clearing land at a former park-and-ride at the junction of Jefferson Street and Philema Road as part of a $14 million redesign of the dangerous Jefferson/Liberty Expressway interchange. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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The extensive transportation construction project that will include new on- and off-ramps for westbound Liberty Expressway traffic is expected to be completed by December 2015. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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Dougherty County Commissioner Ewell Lyle, left, and Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard look over a map of planned changes at the Jefferson Street/Liberty Expressway interchange before a recent public hearing to discuss the project. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — The southbound exit onto Jefferson Street for traffic heading west on the Liberty Expressway is one of the area’s most dangerous stretches of highway. Westbound traffic, cruising along at 65 miles per hour, must enter the brief exit zone while constantly aware of traffic merging from Jefferson via a looping on-ramp that leaves barely more than an eighth of a mile for them to work their way into traffic.

The state Department of Transportation has had a redesign of that dangerous interchange on its radar for more than a decade, funding always the deciding factor that left drivers to contend with the mad dashes of commuters hell-bent on entry and exit, too bad if their antics put others at risk.

But the powers that be in Atlanta finally heard the lobbying of area officials who, year after year, decried the risks hundreds of vehicles a day faced at the interchange. And now they’re doing something about it.

Work began in earnest this week on the Jefferson Street/Liberty Expressway project, the initial stages of a 2 1/2-3-year, $12.5 million-$14 million redesign starting at the clearing of a busy park-and-ride where Jefferson intersects with Philema Road.

“As someone who lives near that interchange, I’m very aware of the dangers it presents to drivers,” said Dougherty County Commissioner Ewell Lyle, who was the primary organizer of a public forum last week called to educate the public on the particulars of the project. “There will be some inconvenience for commuters in the area while work on the project is being done, but I think everyone will be pleased with the final product.

“This is something that will impact our community in a positive way for years to come.”

State DOT officials and the interchange project manager for Albany-based Oxford Construction Co., which is the primary contractor on the project, used the forum to clear up public misconceptions, many of which were the product of erroneous reporting by local media.

“I think it’s important that we allay the fears of businesses and homeowners in that area,” Lyle said. “I’ve heard from several of them who say they’ve been told access to their establishments or to their homes will be cut off at some point during this project. They need to know that that’s not going to happen.”

Kimberly Larson, the DOT’s District 3 communications officer, said work on the project would be done with the transportation needs of local citizens in mind.

“At no time will access to businesses or homes in the area be cut off,” Larson said. “And at no time will access to on- and off-ramps (entering and exiting the Bypass) be cut off. There will, out of necessity, be lane closures, but they will be very restrictive. In fact, during morning and afternoon rush hour — from 6:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. — there will be no lane closures. Traffic will flow as usual.”

Curtailing work during peak commuter hours is only one driver-friendly step in DOT’s plans for the interchange makeover. Shortly into the project (“Within the next two or three months,” according to Larson), a temporary traffic signal will be erected at the northbound exit off the westbound Expressway, where the exit intersects with Jefferson. Curbing and median buffers will be removed at that location, and traffic at the current one-way (northbound) exit will be free to enter onto Jefferson travelling either north and south.

“The traffic signal will be regulated, through use of a video camera, so that if at any time traffic starts to back up at that exit, the signal will change at intervals that allow it to move steadily,” DOT’s Dereck Wilkerson said.

Much of the cost for the project will be for the construction of bridges that will be part of the westbound on- and off-ramps onto Jefferson. Project Manager Mike Snipes, who operates out of the DOT’s regional office in Tifton, said the overhaul will make life simpler at the high-traffic-volume interchange.

“The bridges are essential to the redesign,” Snipes said. “They will eliminate the need for the big, looping on- and off-ramps that are in that location now.”

Some of the key elements of the project include:

— Widening the north side of Philema Road to include a fourth lane of traffic at its intersection with Jefferson. (The widening will include drainage work as well.) In addition to Philema’s current right-turn and two left-turn lanes, a fourth lane will allow traffic to continue straight ahead over one of the newly-constructed bridges that is part of the westbound on-ramp onto the Expressway. (The current westbound on-ramp, which is the primary danger associated with the interchange, will remain in service until the new on-ramp is completed.)

— The temporary traffic signal that will allow both northbound and southbound exit onto Jefferson from the Bypass westbound. (With access onto Jefferson available in both directions, the current southbound Jefferson on-ramp off the westbound Bypass will be shut down.)

— A second bridge will be constructed that will serve as part of the Bypass westbound exit ramp. It will feed traffic to the traffic signal at the Jefferson-Philema intersection and run alongside the new Liberty Expressway on-ramp.

— The temporarily closed park-and-ride displaced by the construction will be relocated nearby once construction is completed.

— Eastbound traffic on the Bypass should not be interrupted by the construction work.

— All of Jefferson from the bypass to just north of Philema, where two lanes merge into one, will be restructured.

“There will be media alerts sent out regularly to let the public know of any work that might impact their commute in that area,” DOT Area Engineer Bill Cooper said. “We’ve also already placed changeable message boards on all the impacted roadways to keep commuters updated on the latest information.

“If people have other convenient routes home or to work, it might be to their advantage to take them while construction is going on. It might save them a little time. But the bottom line is, you’re going to be able to get through this area at all times.”

DOT officials said projected completion date for the project is December of 2015.