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By: Wendell Dawson May 23, 2001

Recent stories on the GRIP program do not detail the effect this program can have on the Northeast GA area. The completion of Hwy 72 4-lane from Athens to South Carolina is important to a number of counties. Completion of the 441-widening project can affect several Northeast GA counties: Putnam, Morgan, Oconee, Clarke, Jackson and Banks. The GRIP Program (Governor’s Road Improvement Program) started in the mid-80’s during the Joe Frank Administration. It was designed to help all areas of GA be within a reasonable distance of a major four-lane highway, especially rural Georgia. It was intended to help economic development in the areas of GA outside the large metropolitan areas. Unfortunately, it only received bond funding that had to be repaid out of DOT revenues resulting in less funding for other projects, particularly local projects. The program has only been worked on piecemeal.

While U S 441 now has bypasses around Eatonton, Madison, Watkinsville, Athens, Commerce and Homer, little has been done to connect them. And the 441 project is only 35% complete and second from last in completion. U S 441 has always been an important North-South Corridor for east-central GA from the North Carolina line to the Florida line. Interstate 75 took much North- South traffic but is not convenient to east-central GA and it runs through Atlanta. The 441 Corridor is particularly important to Northeast GA because many of our counties do not have an interstate highway. However, we are between two major interstate highways: Interstate 20 through Covington, Madison and Greensboro; and Interstate 85 north of Barrow and through Jackson County. We are in an ideal location if we just had the four-lane connection of the two.

When the Mercedes project was under consideration for the area, there was concern about I-85 competition from Greenville and Charlotte. However, the Mercedes folks were looking at using U S 441, I-20 and I-16 to ship cars to the Savannah, Bainbridge and Jacksonville Ports. The plant eventually located on I-20 in Alabama. I-20 is an important east-west link. The U S 441 route is used by many South Georgians to go to the North GA mountains and to attend UGA for educational, sports, cultural and other activities. Unfortunately much of the road in our area was built in the WPA days of the Depression and has too many hills and curves for today’s traffic and larger trucks & vehicles. U S 441 is a safety hazard and has been for many years. There have been numerous deaths on U S 441 in south Oconee County in the last 25 years, including log trucks, head-on collisions, and hydroplaning. In fact, a Morgan county man died near Farmington on May 20, and the story of the fatality appeared on a separate page from the GRIP stories in Sunday’s Athens Banner-Herald.

The Governor and Legislature have arranged bond financing, to be repaid from Federal Highway Funds, to work on completing GRIP sooner than it was progressing. It is estimated to take 20 years at current pace but with the GARVEE bonds could be completed in 7 years. It is my understanding that $400 Million will be available this coming fiscal year. It is important to our area that some of this funding is designated for U S 441 to be completed between I-85 and the Athens Loop and from the Watkinsville Bypass to the Madison Bypass at I-20. That would provide an important transportation link for Northeast GA.

There are several challenges facing this project though. Most of our local counties are not eligible or included in the One-Georgia rural funding programs where much of the funds will be directed. Neither are we eligible for the large massive funding going to the large metropolitan areas. We can slip through the cracks! Another problem is that from Oconee north, the DOT office in Gainesville is the area planning and operational headquarters while the Tennille office has Morgan and Greene, beginning it’s jurisdiction at the Oconee County line. Several years ago, the portion between Watkinsville and Bishop was placed in the long-range plan of ACORTs (Athens-Clarke-Oconee-Regional-Transportation- Study or Metropolitan Planning Office). ACORTS boundary limits stop just north of Bishop and the rest is considered rural and no single agency is pursuing it.

There are some positives. Oconee and Morgan are in the same State House District and in the same Congressional District. The incumbent Senator for Morgan County, Fay Smith, is a democrat from Milledgeville who grew up in Oconee County. She has attended several official functions in Oconee County (using 441 by the way) and probably has some political clout with the current administration. Morgan, Oconee, Madison, Watkinsville, local Chambers of Commerce and newpapers need to support the effort. The area is not effected by the non-attainment moratorium effecting metro Atlanta, including Walton and Barrow Counties. The road projects would be far less expensive than Urban projects with massive interchanges. It just needs pushing!

During my years in Oconee County Government and for two years, in the mid-90’s, as Chairman of the ACCG Transportation Policy Committee, I had numerous contacts with DOT, Federal Hwy Personnel and local officials and transportation planners. During part of this time Commerce’s Bubba McDonald (Now PSC Chairman) was Executive Director of Georgians for Better Transportation. Neither of us ever missed an opportunity to plug GRIP and 441. I made the same pitch on several occasions to the Senate Transportation Committee which visited our area a couple of years ago. We also showed 441 to the DOT board when it visited the area on two different occasions. Max Lockwood, the Mayor of Douglas, and founder of the U S 441 Development Council, has done as much as any single individual to push GRIP and the 441 corridor which traverses 40 counties with over a million people. He and I became friends and allies in this endeavor.

There is more attention given to Commuter Rail from Athens to Atlanta and for upgrading of GA 316 to Interstate status. These are worthy goals and I have always supported them. Some have thought they were “pie in the sky” proposals and would never come to pass. That thinking comes into play with many large projects requiring vision and long-range planning and funding. However, I believe both will eventually come about. The upgrade of 316 will come first but both projects will take years and much planning, funding and local support and effort. It is important to Northeast GA and the counties along the 316 corridor to “do it right” and keep moving it along. However, these are very expensive projects that will not come about overnight. Also, the GRIP program will not take away from the funds needed for commuter rail or 316 upgrade.

The completion of the 441 project should be pressed now. It can be completed in a few short years, saving many lives, costing less money and greatly improving the transportation in our part of the state. We need to support the completion of GRIP all over the state. It is a good program, even more so now as many citizens choose to leave the densely populated urban areas of GA and return to “small-town” life with the convenience of the internet and better and safer transportation to the cultural and trade centers of our area and state