Local officials received an update Wednesday on the progress of several area road projects during the monthly Eggs & Issues program presented by the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber members heard updates from Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) District 2 engineer Jimmy Smith on roadwork done this year as well as a couple of upcoming projects. District 2, the East Central Georgia district, encompasses 27 counties including Baldwin, Washington, Wilkinson, Hancock and Putnam. The East Central Georgia district has about 3,000 miles of state routes alone throughout the 27 counties.
“I want you to know that I've been employed by the Department of Transportation for 27 years now,” Smith said. “Right now is probably some of the best times that I've ever seen since I've been here.”
Smith said the GDOT is is ranked in the top five in the United States and that other states are modeling their transportation departments after what is being done in Georgia. He added he believes tax dollars are being well-spent, and that the legislature has done a good job of allocating funding.
“I want to talk to you about some of the things we’ve gotten completed over the last year,” the engineer said.
First on that list was the Baldwin County portion of the Fall Line Freeway, and Smith displayed his relief over the project finally being completed since it was first envisioned back when Joe Frank Harris was governor of Georgia. Harris served the state from 1983 to 1991.
Other road projects already completed this year or currently in the works include resurfacing U.S. Highway 441 and the business portion of that route. Smith said GDOT is working on resurfacing state Routes 22 and 49. As far as upcoming projects go, the District 2 engineer said the next major one will be the widening of Highway 49 from Little Fishing Creek out to Felton Drive past Baldwin High School. Smith said the widening project would cost around $8.4 million and includes the addition of a traffic signal where Blandy Road meets Highway 49, which drew hearty applause from the assembled crowd.
Smith said Georgia House Bill 170, signed by Gov. Nathan Deal in May 2015, has been a huge help in getting more funding for the state transportation department.
“What that bill did was simply made us where we are today as far as being one of the top five in the nation and having the money to do things,” Smith said. “Prior to that we survived primarily off federal funds. When you deal with the federal government and you spend their money, you have to play by their rules. … With the transportation funding act of 2015, HB 170, we are getting now close to $1 billion of state funds. That’s transformed the state department of transportation from a $2 billion industry to a $3 billion industry.”
He added that the additional funding has helped move some projects along that would have never gotten done in the past and has even helped in getting roadway shoulders mowed in a more timely manner. Rather than the GDOT doing all the mowing work, those jobs have been contracted out to a company based out of North Carolina. Smith said state routes are now being mowed three times a year whereas interstates are being done four times a year.
Outside of road projects and funding, Smith also discussed safety on the roadways. He said that distracted driving is one of the biggest problems on roads right now and provided some statistics. Traffic fatalities are currently up 33 percent across the state the last two years including 1,432 in 2015, which was the first time the state had seen an increase in nine years.
“It went up again last year in 2016, and it’s still going up,” said Smith. “I need your help to spread the word that our people are dying, and we need to pay attention to what we’re doing.”
There have been 139 road deaths in GDOT District 2 alone thus far in 2017, according to Smith, and he said the district’s 27 counties are past the pace set last year.
The GDOT engineer also opened up the floor for questions, and Baldwin County Commissioner Henry Craig asked Smith to discuss the advantages of a Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST). Smith, as a GDOT employee, is not allowed to advocate for the special purpose 1-cent tax, but did say it has worked in a “big, big way” in other parts of the state.
Traffic on Interstate 16, which runs through part of the southern portion of District 2, was also discussed. Smith said 18-wheeler traffic has increased and will continue to because the port in Savannah is on its way to being the busiest port on the east coast. Smith said adding an additional lane to I-16 to accommodate the heavier flow has been discussed, but no concrete plans have been put in place yet.