Work on improvements for the I-95/Highway 21 interchange could happen before the end of the year, state transportation board member Ann Purcell said Thursday.
Speaking to the Rotary Club of Effingham County, Purcell, who represents the 1st Congressional District on the state transportation board, said the diverging diamond project could be let this summer. Work on the unique remedy for the busy intersection could start by the end of the year.
“I think within this year you’re going to see some work at I-95 and Highway 21,” she said. “I’m excited about that. It’s been a long push. We’ve been pushing hard. That diverging diamond is going to be built, and you’re going to see action soon.”
An information meeting on the diverging diamond will be held March 24 at the Port Wentworth Holiday Inn Express from 5-7 p.m.
What is planned to ease congestion at the interchange is a diverging diamond, which will take motorists on the left side, rather than the right side, of the road, turning northbound onto 21 from I-95 north. A similar method has been in use at the I-285/Ashford-Dunwoody Road interchange in DeKalb County.
“I said, ‘oh my gosh,’ too when I went through it at Ashford-Dunwoody,” Purcell said of navigating the diverging diamond.
The solution could save drivers from eight to 15 minutes a day, Purcell estimated. The reworked interchange will include two turn lanes from southbound 21 onto I-95 south.
“That should help us move our traffic,” Purcell said.
Purcell also said the state will be installing a roundabout at Highways 17 and 119 in Guyton, and a roundabout will be put in at the intersection of Ebenezer and Stillwell roads.
“The records show that a roundabout will move your traffic and is a lot safer than a four-way stop or a traffic signal,” she said.
Purcell also espoused her hope for the Effingham Parkway project. The revamped concept, which will be a two-lane road rather than the four-lane path formerly proposed, will connect Highway 30 near Benton Boulevard to Blue Jay Road.
“Our county has been pushing hard,” Purcell said.
Because the Effingham Parkway is classified as an off-the-system road, it becomes the responsibility of the cities and counties affected, Purcell explained.
“We’re doing what we can to help out the parkway,” she said of the state DOT. “We want Chatham to join in so we can get from Jimmy DeLoach (Parkway) into our county.”
An informal open house on the Effingham Parkway is set for Wednesday from 4-6 p.m. at the Effingham County administrative complex.
Purcell also discussed the need to replace in the interchange at I-16 and Old River Road and said the state is collaborating with the Effingham Industrial Development Authority and the county on the plans.
“We’re still working on that interchange,” she said. “That is a very positive thing for this county if we can get that interchange upgraded. We can get the project ready so that when funding is there we can go forward.”
Work on the Jimmy DeLoach Parkway extension, which will provide a direct connection from I-95 to the port for trucks, also is continues to move along, Purcell added.
“I’m excited about that,” she said. “You can see where the overpasses are going up. It’s really going great. You always get a few hiccups, but it’s a very positive thing.”
The Chatham Metropolitan Planning Organization is looking at how to extend Jimmy DeLoach Parkway to I-16, possibly with interchanges in the Bloomingdale area.
“That will certainly pull a bunch of our traffic off 95 and 21,” Purcell said.
Work on the deepening of the Savannah harbor also is starting to take place, Purcell said. The Army Corps of Engineers has awarded the first dredging contract for the $706 million project that will take the depth of the harbor to 47 feet. The state has put in $266 million for the port deepening.
Divers in the Savannah River have been recovering material from the Civil War ironclad CSS Georgia, which was sunk in the river just off Fort Jackson.
“It’s close to the avenue that’s going to be dredged,” Purcell explained.
The initial dredging contract will deepen the outer harbor, a length of more than 18 miles from Fort Pulaksi to the Atlantic Ocean.
“Progress is being made,” Purcell said.
Transportation funding woes
With all the projects on the board now, Purcell cautioned there may not be enough for other efforts.
“We are in dire need of funding,” she said, “and I don’t know where it’s coming from.”
House Bill 170, which is proposed to alleviate the state’s transportation funding through additional excise taxes on motor fuel sales, was re-written twice before it was passed and sent to the state Senate.
Purcell said she favors an excise tax levy since it is more stable than a sales tax. It also spared local governments and school systems from an expected loss of revenue after the original bill shifted sales tax proceeds to the state.
The bill also will tack on a $200 annual fee to electric or alternatively-fueled vehicles.
“It’s not the best, but it is a lot better than what it started out to be,” Purcell said.
The legislation’s future in the Senate is unclear, since Sen. Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) has expressed his misgivings, according to Purcell.
“We have no idea what is going to happen to House Bill 170,” she said. “Sometimes, our elected officials have to make a compromise to get good things in a bill that might not be everything we want there but it is the best we can do.”
If passed and signed into law, HB 170 is expected to generate nearly $1 billion a year. The state also usually gets $1.25 billion a year from the federal government, but that figure won’t be approached, Purcell said. A joint legislative study committee said last year the state needs $1.5 billion a year in order to maintain its current transportation infrastructure.
For fiscal year 2014, the DOT had a budget of $2.2 billion, but less than 1 percent came from the state’s general fund.
The federal law authorizing transportation spending expires May 31, and the state gets about 55 percent of its funding for transportation from the federal government. The state’s transportation resources further are hurt by stagnant motor fuel sales tax receipts.
“They’re broke, basically,” she said. “You can’t make plans on money that you don’t know you’re going to get or not. I will stand on a pedestal and preach that we do not have the funds we used to have to operate in transportation. The federal government is sending only 70 percent of what they normally send when they do send money. The motor fuel tax isn’t bringing in revenue like it used to.
“We’ll have a few lettings (this) week,” Purcell continued, “and then after that, we’re going to be very, very cautious. Safety is our priority and we’re working to make our roads better and our bridges better.”
Parkway plans meeting
• When: March 18, 4-6 p.m.
• Where: Effingham County administrative complex
Diverging diamond meeting
• When: March 24, 5-7 p.m.
• Where: Holiday Inn Express, Port Wentworth