Effingham County commissioners have decided to drive straight ahead with plans to acquire two lanes of right-of-way for the Effingham Parkway.
The state announced it will provide $44 million in funding to build the long-awaited parkway. Originally, the federal funding for the parkway did not allow the county to acquire four lanes of right-of-way for a two-lane road. With state money now paving the way, the county can purchase the additional land to widen the road at a later date.
With that, though, the county would have to conduct studies on the additional and that pushes back how quickly work can get started on the Parkway, County Administrator Toss Allen explained.
“Under federal funding, federal highway rules will not allow you to acquire four lanes of right-of-way, unless you have funding or the additional two lanes,” he said. “Under state funds, it is possible to acquire four lanes of right-of-way and build two.”
Commissioners urged pushing forward with the plans as they are.
“We keep going,” said Chairman Wendall Kessler.
Under the standards of federal funding, the county was limited to procuring two lanes of right-of-way.
“There was never an alternative to do anything differently,” Allen said.
Choosing to buy four lanes of right-of-way — and the conducting the ecological, historical and archaeological studies that are incumbent with it, even with similar studies on adjoining land — pushes the start of parkway work back at least another year, according to Allen. It also means amending the concept report and resubmitting that for the state Department of Transportation to review and approve.
Commissioners also approved a value engineering study on the parkway, which is required of projects costing more than $50 million, and going with the extra right-of-way means canceling that contract, Allen added.
As eager as the county is to get started, Allen intimated the state feels likewise.
“They don’t like the idea of going back to ground zero,” he said.
Allen said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also may ask why the county bought additional right-of-way it may not use. The studies needed on the four lanes of right-of-way also may put into motion a practical alternatives report, “which means we have to look at three different alignments,” Allen said.
Currently, the state DOT has an April 2017 date for right-of-way authorization and a let date of August 2018 for work.
Kessler noted there are five large parcels the county needs to acquire between Goshen Road and the parkway’s northern end. From Goshen Road south to the Chatham-Effingham line, the projected route will not affect any existing structures.
Kessler also said zoning restrictions could help reserve land from Goshen Road north for future right-of-way. Vera Jones, the 2nd District commissioner in whose district the parkway will lie, added there likely will not be much if any development close to the parkway once it’s done.
“They won’t build right up to close it, knowing the understanding is to build four lanes,” she said.
Traffic models done for the Parkway suggest that the planned two lanes will be enough for the next 20 years. The average daily traffic for the parkway in 2019 will be 7,080 and will grow to 9,500 in 2039.
Kessler said the county can plan to make it four lanes in the future while building the projected two lanes now.
The parkway, designed to be 6.4 miles long, will start on Blue Jay Road, about 3 miles west of Highway 21. It will connect to Highway 30 in Chatham County, just east of Meinhard Road and about 1.5 miles west of Highway 21. Chatham County is expected to extend Benton Boulevard to the southern end of Effingham Parkway, and Allen said Chatham County’s project should start before work on the Effingham Parkway commences.
Undertaking the necessary studies to purchase the additional two lanes of right-of-way will set the project back too long, Kessler warned.
“If we were to start over, we would be out there in ’21 getting started,” he said. “There is no reason to start this process over.”
Other commissioners also were anxious to begin work on the parkway.
“The people are ready,” Jones said. “I’m scared to death of delaying this thing.”
Right-of-way acquisition is expected to cost approximately $3 million and construction is pegged at more than $41 million. Construction on the parkway is expected to take two years. The state DOT, in its concept report, said Effingham needs alternatives to Highway 21.
“Due to the increasing traffic volumes, (Highway) 21 is anticipated to operate at an unacceptable level in the future,” the report stated.
Allen also cautioned that any delay on the parkway’s start also will have a cost impact.
“If you have a time delay, it’s going to be a dollar delay,” he said. “And we’ve had plenty of those since 2005.”