Saturday, April 19, 2014

New interchange at SR 74 and I-85 a transportation priority for county


By Josh Akeman

Representatives from the county commission and three Fayette municipalities met on Thursday to discuss traffic issues in the county. Nearly a dozen different projects were discussed, but most prominent was the proposed redesign of the on/off ramp at the intersection of State Route 74 and Interstate 85 which sits just across the boarder with Fulton County.
County Commission Chair Steve Brown discussed the project with Mayor Vanessa
Fleisch and City Manager Jim Pennington from Peachtree City; Mayor Greg Clifton, Public Services Director Chris Hindman, and city councilman Jim Williams of Fayetteville; and Mayor Eric Dial of Tyrone. County Engineer Phil Mallon also contributed.
Brown pushed for a coalition not only of local leaders, but of locals in general to support improvements to the on/off ramp at the intersection of Highway 74 and I-85, which has become a traffic bottleneck for many commuters, especially given the tractor-trailer traffic heading toward nearby Oakley Industrial Boulevard.
Brown has been championing this issue for some time, and has been pushing especially for a partial clover design versus the cheaper divergent diamond design for the interstate on and off ramps. The divergent diamond configuration has a shorter useful lifespan and would likely be less effective in mitigating traffic congestion. Brown said that local engineers all support the partial clover leaf design, but because it will be more expensive, it will require some political push to convince the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) to accept it.
"We like this one," Brown said. "All of our engineers across the board, even our district engineer with DOT, say this is the way to do it. They're still leaning to a divergent diamond, (but) the only reason they want to do it is it costs less."
Brown went on to explain that the projected difference in the cost of a divergent diamond design and the partial cloverleaf is around $11 million, which he said, "in DOT terms is not a whole heck of a lot of money. We are working hard on pushing this design."
Brown explained that $8 million has been secured for acquiring right of way, money that will be available in July of 2015. He said the next step is to press the DOT for design money.
Anyone that drives this area regularly would understand the congestion and the persistent flow of tractor-trailers. That heavy truck traffic from nearby business complicates what is already a busy traffic situation on the I-85 on and off ramps.
Brown emphasized that further warehouse and industrial expansion were coming to the area, which would only compound the problem of freight traffic mixing with commuter traffic.
Brown mainly pushed for an awareness campaign aimed toward citizens, designed to get them to submit their support for improvements to this traffic pinch-point. He suggested the mayors encourage people to submit their comments to the Atlanta Regional Commission, an avenue for public comment that is lightly used. It would be a "banner year," Brown said, for the ARC to hear 150 to 300 comments.
Tyrone Mayor Eric Dial suggested it might be more useful to leverage the influence of local businesses to lobby for change.
"They need to hear from certain companies that maybe have just barely gotten off the ground," Dial said. "Once they hear from them that this is critical, they're probably going to listen even more."
Brown said that he'd tried to work through the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce to get some traction on the idea but had met with little success.
"The Chamber has been involved. I told them I need the biggest businesses in Fayette County to sign off on this. Short of the hospital, it's been basically zero," Brown said.
New Fayetteville city councilman and current Chattahoochee Hills city manager Jim Williams had plenty to contribute as well. He agreed with Brown's vision for the interchange and felt further education for local residents could swell support.
"If you could explain this could be a diamond interchange and teach them how bad those things are, how complicated they are and how short term they are, I think there could be a real groundswell for this," Williams said.
Brown said he has found a lot of support from other leaders in Fulton and elsewhere, and said Representative Matt Ramsey's efforts in support of the idea made him " the most proud of any local official" he has ever been.
Brown emphasized that political pressure of that sort is the county's best path to influencing the DOT.
"The way the game is played, Gwinnett gets the projects they want because they throw a lot of sales tax at it. They use leverage. Unfortunately, we don't have that kind of leverage. We're trying to use political pressure to get that," Brown said.
"There'll be millions of dollars freed up [and available], but then it becomes a free for all for who gets those millions of dollars."
Mallon said that the DOT has been open to the partial clover leaf idea thus far, but are in an ongoing process of evaluation. He said an upcoming concept report will most likely tip the scales one way or another.
"If it recommends the partial clover leaf, I think we're in good shape. If not, I think it becomes a political battle," Mallon said.
Williams in particular showed interest in another element of the design Brown showed at the meeting (and accompanying this story). In the design, an extra half-diamond interchange could be added slightly north of the current interchange allowing freight traffic to hit straight up SR 92 to the interstate. Trucks exiting the highway in particular are a problem currently because they have to make a wide turn onto SR 74 and immediately get to the left lane in order to turn onto Oakley Industrial Boulevard, which connects to SR 92. An extra interchange could eliminate most of the freight traffic through the area.
Brown said that while he supports the added half-diamond interchange, it is very much a concept rather than a plan that has been set in motion. He said it is most important, at present, to focus on persuading the DOT to choose a partial clover leaf design for the main interchange.
Brown said he would developing a simple message to Fayette Countians that would inform them on the interchange and encourage them to speak up about it.




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