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Happiness, skepticism for new Highway 44 plan

April 02, 2021 - 00:00
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    Drone aerial of the Highway 44 intersection with Linger Longer Road, near the Publix shopping center. GDOT now says they will remove the traffic lights and create a roundabout similar to the one a few yards to the right of intersection. MARK ENGEL/Staff

Becky Fleming jumped right on the social media app Nextdoor to pass along the good news.

“…there will be a traffic light added at Scott Road!! Yeah!!” she posted.

The intersection of Scott Road and State Route 44 in Putnam County requires motorists who want to turn left onto 44 to dodge traffic coming from both directions along the busy two-lane road.

“There are wrecks there all the time. I see the debris and you can see the oil spills,” Fleming told the Lake Oconee News. “Somebody that I knew at Lakeside Church years ago was killed at that intersection, going out and turning left.”

Fleming says she has done extensive research on the number of residents and businesses who rely on that intersection and advocated for a traffic light.

She had just received a 10-page letter from the Georgia Department of Transportation announcing changes to its plan to widen SR 44 from two to four lanes. It said that although studies have determined no traffic light is warranted at Scott Road, a light “would be permitted.” However, the state would require it be paid for by Putnam County.

Eatonton Messenger Associate Editor Lee Coleman says the Putnam County Commission has been working with GDOT on the light and hopes to have it installed by this August.

For more than 15 years, the project to widen Highway 44 has been in some stage of planning and the start of construction is, as they say, still down the road.

The updated drawings are yet to be finalized but the plans still call for expanding to four lanes of about 11 miles of road from just north of Interstate 20 in Greene County south to Harmony Road in Putnam County. GDOT says traffic studies over the years show a dramatic increase in activity on SR 44 that as recently as 2018 was rated as “approaching unstable flow, drivers have little freedom to maneuver.”

The project has been met with resistance by residents who worry about the aesthetics and increased truck traffic as well as businesses concerned by plans to add raised medians along the route and limit curb cuts for parking lots.

In June 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, GDOT held a virtual public hearing online. Plans were posted on the GDOT website and comments from the public were accepted during a fourweek period.

Last week, GDOT sent a response letter to the 261 residents and business owners it says submitted questions and comments last summer.

Perhaps the biggest change will be the conversion of the main intersection at SR 44 and Linger Longer Road at the Publix shopping center. The four-way stoplights will be removed and a roundabout will be constructed to integrate all the continuously moving traffic around in a circle.

GDOT says roundabouts were initially evaluated and ruled out because of the disparity between traffic on SR 44 and its side roads.

“In response to public comments, however,” GDOT wrote in its letter to residents, “Georgia DOT performed an additional evaluation and the decided to add a roundabout at the intersection of SR 44 and Linger Longer Road.”

Area residents were quick to react to the news.

“Not sure how a roundabout would work on a dual lane highway,” wrote one resident on Nextdoor.

“Coming from NJ,” posted someone else, “we are very familiar with roundabouts, just never have seen a traffic light replaced with one, interesting!”

“Sounds like a waste of funds to me,” wrote another local resident, “and seems to create an unneeded hazard on a busy road like that.”

Other details contained in the 10-page report include:

· Bicycle lanes and pedestrian sidewalks will be constructed along some of the road but, in response to a couple of questions, golf carts will not be permitted on sidewalks.

· The two-lane bridge across Lake Oconee at the Greene-Putnam county line will be rehabilitated and widened but not raised to allow taller boats to pass underneath. One previous plan called for a second two-lane bridge to be built next to the existing one.

· Medians will be constructed along much of the road with “U-turns available at most median openings to provide access for those residents and businesses not directly served by a median opening.” GDOT says studies have shown this is safer than constructing center turn lanes.

· Medians will be grassed. GDOT will contract with the county to cut the grass but there is no money in its budget to pay for landscaping. Beautification will be up to Greene and Putnam counties, respectively, and GDOT suggests that “any local groups, citizens or businesses that would like to participate” should contact their county manager.

· Since the project occurs along a State Route, truck traffic cannot be restricted. It is not clear whether a roundabout at the Linger Longer intersection will discourage trucks from using the road.

· GDOT said that since the project is state funded, no noise impact studies will be done except if required in “eligible historic properties” by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the State Historic Preservation Officer.

· The GDOT letter says that environmental studies are currently underway and if there is a problem, a report will be made public. Also, a study in 2014 determined that the project will have no effect on federally protected animals which could exist in the project area such as the bald eagle, red-cockaded woodpecker and black-spored quillwort.

“It needs to be done,” one reader wrote about the SR 44 widening on the Lake Oconee News Facebook page, “but what a traffic nightmare that will be.”

Once the design plan is completed, GDOT says it will be made public but the public comment period last summer was the final official chance for feedback and suggestions to be made. The report did say that specific questions or concerns could be directed to project manager Bruce Anderson at branderson@dot.ga.gov.

According to Kyle Collins, GDOT District Communications Specialist, right of way work has already started but there will be more than 210 pieces of property that the state will have to acquire before construction can begin.

The letter sent to residents states that “construction of the proposed project is anticipated to start in 2023.”

Barring delays, which some consider likely on a project that has been in the planning stage for almost two decades, estimates on total construction time range from 3½ to 4½ years. During that time, the letter says, “two lanes of traffic would be kept open during construction” and the contractor is to maintain access to businesses and residences at all times. Exceptions would be kept to a minimum and during off hours, according to GDOT.