Barrow County’s long-time transportation engineer has pledged to do everything he can to fix a dangerous situation that nearly stopped in its tracks the growing momentum for a new bypass to fix downtown Winder’s truck traffic problem.
At the March 9 meeting of the Barrow County Board of Commissioners, Chairman Danny Yearwood had to break a tie vote to spend about $44,500 for a “value engineering” study that federal and state transportation agencies require before the West Winder Bypass project could move forward.
Commissioners Isaiah Berry, Billy Parks and Ben Hendrix voted against the expenditure, complaining for the most part about spending money on a multi-million-dollar potential project instead of fixing existing roads that are either unsafe or in bad shape.
Berry was passionate about one traffic safety problem in particular: the lack of a left turn lane on Hwy. 211 at the Barrow Park Drive entrance to the county’s new criminal justice center. In an interview this week, he said he had a close call there not long ago.
“It was about two weeks ago around 11 in the morning,” he said. “There was a good bit of traffic. It was getting close to lunchtime and people were coming there. As I was going down the hill (on Hwy. 211 heading north), I was behind a tractor-trailer. There was a car in front of the tractor-trailer. The car in front waited until it got almost to the turn (onto Barrow Park Drive) to put their brakes on, and then the tractor-trailer had to jam on their brakes. The trailer portion fishtailed a little bit."
“The guy wasn’t going 50 miles per hour, and it says the speed limit there is 55. I imagine he was going 40-45 miles per hour. If he had been going any faster, there would have been a tragic accident. One of our kids coming through there and not being very skilled at driving – anything might happen.”
Sheriff Jud Smith said Tuesday that he has received similar reports from courthouse employees.
“I have had several people at the courthouse advise me they have had many close calls while turning left into Barrow Park Drive,” he said. “In my opinion, it is very important that we get a turn lane there. It is just a matter of time before a deputy will work a very serious accident there.”
Since the court and jail complex opened last spring, there have been five rear-end collisions at that precise spot, Smith said.
Three of the accidents occurred between 7:20 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Two happened in the late afternoon.
None of the five collisions apparently involved serious injuries, based on the fact that the accident reports don’t indicate the deputies call for EMS support, the sheriff said.
But the victim of the wreck at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 21, 2009, was a male employee who works at the courthouse, the sheriff said.
COUNTY ENGINEER PLEDGES HWY. 211 FIX
County Engineer Darrell Greeson, who presented the value engineering study to the BOC last week, found himself in a political hot seat over the lack of the turn lane.
After the meeting, he told several commissioners that he didn’t create the problem but would fix it.
In a March 11 e-mail to the entire board, he pledged to pursue with state transportation officials a permanent fix for that trouble spot on the state highway, and he also said he would pursue with the Georgia Department of Transportation several temporary measures to make the Hwy. 211/Barrow Park Drive intersection safer.
“I wanted to let you know I will do everything in my means to help correct this intersection,” Greeson said. “I will contact GDOT with my intentions.”
He said he would ask GDOT for permission to put out traffic counters to measure actual speeds of vehicles coming down the hill just before the turn, and would ask the state agency for additional signage and a flashing beacon on Hwy. 211 to give drivers an advance warning of drivers turning left.
Greeson said he also would the design, draft and permitting work for a new left-turn lane, and seek state assistance on the project.
“All of the work will be in the State Route, and (GDOT) will have he final say on everything proposed.”
His e-mail notes that GDOT in October 2008 said the intersection was in full compliance but he would request the agency conduct an up-to-date traffic study.
Greeson said Tuesday in an interview that although he was the county engineer when the criminal justice center was planned and built, he was kept out of the loop on the project.
“(Former public works director) Terry Darragh kept me in the dark on that project,” Greeson said. “(Former assistant county administrator) Michael Fischer was the project manager on thte new courthouse, jail and road, and Terry Darragh was supposed to be his road man. Terry went back to… the project manager for Moreland Altobeli (Associates).
“So it lies right there. All those people are gone. So basically I am here to clean up the mess.”
BYPASS PROJECT GAINING MOMENTUM
Greeson said he understands the reluctance of the three commissioners to spend money on the value engineering study in light of existing needs. But if the mandatory study had not been approved, it would have stopped the bypass just as it is gaining support from state and federal officials.
Greeson said he was notified Tuesday in an e-mail from someone at the Atlanta Regional Commission that Congress has extended funding for the federal highway bill with the requested $17 million earmark for the bypass. The newspaper’s attempts to confirm that information overnight were unsuccessful.
And last week, GDOT’s Office of Planning notified Greeson that it is proposing that the bypass construction be divided into three phases, instead of two, in order to further facilitate funding.
Greeson Tuesday night provided to the Barrow Journal a copy of the Feb. 18 document entitled, “Potential Phasing of the West Winder Bypass,” which he received several days ago.
The document states that the new phasing concept is a direct result of a Feb. 1 meeting between Barrow County officials and state transportation commissioner Vance Smith.
“As a result of this meeting, GDOT has decided to look at breaking the project into smaller portions to make the project easier to fund due to its high total cost. The Office of Planning has developed a recommendation for a phasing scenario to break the project into three distinct phases.”
The proposal is for the first phase of the bypass go all of the way from Matthews School Road to Hwy. 211, instead of stopping at Pearl Pentecost Road as originally planned. The first phase also would include a grade-separated crossing of Hwy. 8, Bankhead Highway and the CSX railroad tracks.
The GDOT document states the first phase would “allow the industrial and commercial traffic to directly access SR 211 and I-85 and avoid any at-grade crossings and attempted travel through Downtown Winder.”
The second phase would be an upgrade the bypass to a four-lane section along Patrick Mill Road all of the way to the at-grade intersection at GA 316. The third phase would be a new interchange on 316 at Patrick Mill Road/West Winder Bypass.
GDOT proposes that the first phase would be built between 2014 and 2016, the second phase in the 2016-2020 timeframe, and the interchange from 2020-2025.
Greeson said he also has been asked to quickly provide cost estimates for the new phases that Moreland-Altobelli is now developing. The company since 2005 already has been paid about $600,000 from the SPLOST funds for the project. It stands to make another $1.4 million for the rest of its work on the bypass, leaving about $1.6 million in SPLOST funds for other expenses, Greeson said.
Yearwood on Monday issued a memo to the county commissioners and press about his recent contacts with state officials regarding transportation and sewer projects.