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DOT looks at solutions for 95/21

POSTED: February 27, 2014 8:34 p.m.

Traffic at the Highway 21/Interstate 95 intersection could be getting a unique solution, Effingham County leaders learned recently.

Todd Long, the deputy commissioner for the state Department of Transportation, said the often-congested connection might be a candidate for the approach being taken at three metro Atlanta intersections. The plan, called a divergent diamond interchange, has drivers use the left side of the road to go through an interchange.

“I know it sounds kind of strange, but it’s a neat design,” said Long, who had been the department’s director of planning before becoming deputy commissioner. “The divergent diamond interchange — give it a chance. It’s innovative and it works.”

Long said the DOT is using them at two very heavily-traveled intersections in metro Atlanta, at Ashford-Dunwoody Road and I-285 and also at Pleasant Hill Road and I-85, and is about to open at Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85.

Long and state transportation board member Ann Purcell said the Jimmy DeLoach Parkway extension, called the Last Mile project, to get tractor-trailers bound for the Savannah port off Highway 21 and I-95 also will reduce traffic volume.

The groundbreaking for the 3.1 mile-long connector, to tie I-95 into the port, was held in October. The extension will take the parkway to Highway 307/Bourne Avenue and provide a limited-access, four-lane road from the interstate to the port. It is estimated it will take as many 8,000 trucks a day off Highway 21.

“It is under way,” Long said. “You should see a lot more work this spring and summer.”

All the right-of-way needed for the extension has been obtained, and Long added there will be no at-grade railroad crossings on the extension. As it reaches a rail line, there will be an overpass.

Purcell said the route is becoming apparent as vegetation along the path has been removed.

“You can see exactly where it is going to be,” she said.

While that project, at a cost of nearly $73 million, is funded, Long warned that state transportation revenues could be hitting a roadblock from Congress. MAP-21, the federal highway spending act passed two years ago, runs out at the end of the current fiscal year. For the federal government, that’s the end of September. The state’s fiscal cycle ends June 30.

“The transportation bill in Washington is the most important issue we have facing us for the next 12 months,” Long said.

Most road funding comes from the gas tax, he explained. There is a state gas tax and a federal component, and the federal portion is 18.4 cents per gallon. The state gas tax has two parts — one is 7.5 cents per gallon and the other is a percentage-based portion of 4 percent. Of that 4 percent tax, three-fourths of its proceeds come back to the state, and Long estimated it to be about 17-18 cents per gallon.

“Well, that’s worked pretty well for years and years,” he said of the funding through the gas taxes. “The gas tax has been a terrific source of revenue for transportation. It’s important we put that tax back into the roads that built it.”

But two things are happening currently, Long continued. First, people are driving as much or less than they have been before. As the population has increased, historically, so too have the number of miles driven by Americans.

In the last five or six years, however, the number of miles driven has not increased. Coupled with more efficient vehicles that use less gas, that means less gas being used and less gas taxes being paid.

“We’re seeing a flattening of our revenue streams for the last five or six years,” Long noted. “That’s a big concern. Congress is trying to figure what to do.”

A reauthorization of the federal gas tax may not be in the offing, and Congress could explore finding ways to derive revenue from the miles driven rather than from the gas used.

“We’re afraid nothing is going to happen between now and the bill’s end at the end of the federal fiscal year,” Long said. “Over time, our revenue stream could go down by 25 to 30 percent. That means big projects, like the Effingham Parkway, are going to be a challenge for us.”

Long said the DOT not only has to build roads but continue to maintain the ones it already has.

“Our roads consistently get ranked very high in the nation,” he said. “We take good care of our roads. You can’t build roads and not take care of them.”

Long also discussed the impact of the Transportation Investment Act in the regions — Central Savannah River Area, Heart of Georgia-Altamaha and River Valley — that passed the transportation special purpose local option sales tax. While revenues are not coming as anticipated, “those counties, 46 out of 159, will tell you they are loving life,” he said.

“They have money for the first time to pave roads,” Long added. “They are fixing roads that are in bad shape. Big infrastructure projects are moving in.”

The DOT awarded a bid for a $34 million reconstruction and widening project in Columbia County last November and also began a $31 million widening project in Randolph County last July. In all, more than 860 projects are scheduled to be funded through the T-SPLOST in those three regions.

“We’re getting projects out the door,” Long said. “The program is a complete success in the standpoint of delivery, so far. We just need to get revenues up. It is going well.”

While those three regions are getting the money to address needs, the revenues for other projects across the state remains problematic.

“One of our biggest issues is always funding,” Long said. “We’ve got to counter that with investment in new capital. We have major projects in the Atlanta area, we have major projects all over the state that are going to require lots of revenue.”

But the state can put in improvements on a smaller scale that benefit drivers, he said.

“We are doing little things, sometimes adding a right-turn lane at an intersection, adding a left-turn lane at a traffic light, those are the things we are doing to make your ride to and from work better,” Long said.

Long said the DOT is going through the challenges for the Effingham Parkway’s environmental documents and said the DOT — as the title sponsor — supports the Savannah harbor deepening.

“It comes with consequences,” Long cautioned. “Bigger ships mean more trucks and obviously, the infrastructure network is impacted. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re very excited where we’re headed in the state.”

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