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10/24/00 - Transportation Master Plan GA316-University Parkway-Epps Bridge-Oconee Connector




Since 1991, Oconee County has pursued a master plan for transportation corridors in the area of GA 316 and Epps Bridge Road area.  This was an outgrowth of a discussion and meeting with DOT Commissioner Wayne Shackelford and his staff concerning limited access plans for 316.  We were told that if we worked on frontage roads and a master plan then the DOT would help with funding under the county contract program.   As county contract funds have become more limited, the emphasis has shifted to Federal funding and State matching (20%) programs which must go through Athens-Clarke-Oconee Regional Transportation Study (ACORTS) planning and process.  ACORTS is the local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the Athens urban area which consists of all of Clarke and most of the area of Oconee extending from Bishop along the State Route 53 corridor to the Barrow and Clarke county lines.
A general concept plan or map was developed to allow local roads and planned roads to interconnect and bridge over the Athens Loop to allow local traffic the opportunity to circulate without having to get on and off the four-lanes at one point.   We did not want to allow it to become another “Atlanta Highway”.  Unfortunately, Oconee has limited resources which have increased as we grew our sales tax base.  We had to proceed in stages that often took several years.  It took planning, local funding and engineering and patience.   The DOT worked with the County in implementing the concept.   Home Depot, Lowes and Walmart are all located in conformity with the overall concept or “master plan”.
The Oconee Connector was planned as a “frontage road” with engineering consistent with the Federal Hwy Administration design criteria.   We had learned early on that the then existing Epps Bridge-Jennings Mill intersection was too close to the Athens Loop (causing weaving problems for on and off traffic on 316).  The Oconee Connector was located as close as possible to the Loop and the engineering was then done by GA DOT over a period of about two years.  The county acquired the ROW, much of it by donation, for the Connector.  The GA DOT purchased the ROW for the eventual interchange that would be part of the 316 “upgrade”.   The County and DOT built the project with state and local funds under the county contract program.  The total project cost was approximately 2.7 Million Dollars with the county paying approximately 1.4 Million Dollars.   The Connector will be four-laned with the GA 53-Mars Hill Rd widening project under a Federal-State Aid project.  
Jennings Mill Parkway was started the same way as Oconee Connector with local and state funding under the county contract program.  The county paid for engineering the sections by Home Depot and Lowes.  The road is planned to extend to and over the Athens Loop as funding permits.  The county has done some engineering but cannot go further until more funding is available.   Bridge and interchange ramps are planned at the Loop to connect the Oconee Connector and Jennings Mill Parkway eventually. The rough estimate today for the Bridge, ramps, and Jennings Mill Parkway is in the range of $ Million.   It will require State and Federal funding.  A bridge is also planned to connect the Parkway with Daniells Bridge Rd near Home Depot to facilitate the circulation of traffic in the area.  This bridge is in the long-range plan.
Federal Aid projects must have GA DOT and ACORTS support to proceed through the lengthy process.   ACORTS deals with a 20-year plan.  The active projects (ROW and Construction) are in the first tier, or three-year plan.  Projects that are being planned and engineered are in the second tier, or years 4, 5 & 6.   All other projects are in long range.  Priorities can change in the second tier and long range projects.  However, projects in the first tier are committed and must have follow through plans and funding.   To be effective in getting projects in the programs requires advance local planning and engineering.  DOT does not provide much local surveying and engineering work for counties anymore.
While absolutely necessary in a growing county, Federal funding has a downside.  It is slow and subject to stringent regulations and design and construction policies.  It removes the local flexibility in median cuts, curves, etc.  It has a prescribed and strict right of way acquisition policy.  No ROW can be acquired before the concept and environmental plan is approved which can take 2 years or longer.   Then the County or DOT must offer fair market value payment to the property owner.   The county is precluded from accepting donated ROW from a developer or willing owner until all of these requirements are met.
The widening of GA 53 and Mars Hill Road between GA 316 and Business 441 in Watkinsville will also facilitate traffic flow and safety in the area.  At the same time, it will connect two major highways that run through the populated and developed areas of Oconee County.   This is a Federal-State project that is in the first tier of the ACORTS plan.   The county has committed approximately 1 million dollars in engineering and design costs.  The county will be responsible for 20 % of the utility relocation.  The state and federal funding will pay for ROW (the county will actual buy it), remaining costs of utility relocation and construction.  The total project cost is estimated at $5,652,140.
Jimmy Daniell Rd –GA 316 interchange is part of the plan and GA DOT has purchased part of the ROW for this eventual upgrade.   The preliminary layout was designed by DOT for ROW acquisition purposes.    The relocation of McNutt Creek Rd intersection (Bogart Interchange) is also part of the upgrade.   The County and the Oconee Development Authority has already purchased the bulk of the ROW for this future interchange in the vicinity of Gateway Business Park.   The GA DOT has purchased most of the ROW for the eventual upgrade and improvement of the interchange at GA 316 and the Athens Loop.
Some of these projects will take longer than others.   All are mid to long-term projects that will require the diligent pursuit and planning of Oconee County and its officials and staff.   It will be implemented in stages.   It will take patience and perseverance.  We have the groundwork laid for an attractive and safer corridor.  We must protect and implement the plan.                                                               


                                                                           Wendell Dawson, Chairman                                                                                   Oconee County Board of Commissioners