The long-awaited Effingham Parkway may have to wait a little longer, if the state Department of Transportation’s fiscal woes prolong or worsen.
Transportation officials and experts met with Effingham County commissioners to discuss the roadway, which will run from Highway 119 to the intersection of Jimmy Deloach Parkway and I-95 in Chatham County.
“It’s a matter of time and money,” said state Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Pooler).
And to hear transportation officials talk, there is very little of the latter to go around.
“I can tell you there’s gonna be some slow times with the DOT,” said Raybon Anderson, the state transportation board member for the 12th Congressional District. “You don’t know what we’re going through today. Right now, we don’t know what will happen.”
But planners and officials are going ahead with the parkway, as much as they can, and have narrowed down the routes they want to take.
The original concept of the road was to go from Highway 119 to Highway 30 in Chatham County, but the Chatham Metropolitan Planning Organization advised that the road needed to go to the interstate, said Tom Moreland of Moreland Altobelli Associates.
“It started as an idea that we needed a central collecting artery in Effingham County,” Moreland said. “The MPO in Savannah said, ‘hey, you’re dumping all this traffic onto (Highway) 30. It’s got to get over to the interstate.’”
So the Effingham Parkway’s route will end at the intersection of Jimmy DeLoach Parkway and I-95 in Chatham County.
“The bad news is, it at least doubles the cost of the project,” Moreland said. “It is a regional highway project that we know takes a while to get on the ground.”
Survey crews have been looking at the topography, and engineers are drawing up configurations of the ramps that would tie the Jimmy DeLoach and Effingham parkways together at I-95.
“We’re right on the brink of doing a lot of work,” Moreland said.
The parkway, once building is started, will be done in two phases. One phase will be from I-95 to Blue Jay Road. At a price tag of $68 million, it is the more expensive of the two phases and most of that cost is in the interstate ramps. The other phase will be from Blue Jay Road to Highway 119.
“The original route was from Little McCall Road to McCall Road,” Moreland said. “That has been revisited. It’s now a pretty much new location all the way through.”
Instead, the Blue Jay to 119 phase — a seven-mile-long stretch — will run just west of a natural gas line easement. It will be mostly straight, Moreland noted, with a 44-foot median, four lanes at 55 mph and with controlled access.
The Georgia Department of Transportation is agreeable to that route, Moreland added. The environmental documentation required is under way and once the concept is approved, officials want to hold a public information meeting.
“The route is wet, but it is buildable,” Moreland said. “It is a big undertaking, in my opinion. It’s a very good project for the whole region. It has changed from being a collector of residential traffic.”
While DOT officials liked the alignment Moreland Altobelli engineers have outlined, the parkway’s crossing into another county raises some concern. Part of the Effingham Parkway will, in fact, cross into Savannah city limits.
There’s also the question of potential development at the intersection of Benton Boulevard and Highlands Drive and the projected cost of right-of-way acquisitions — as much as $40 million in Chatham alone.
“We’ve got to get Chatham on board,” Moreland said. “It’s an investment in the future. You don’t build major things overnight. We’re working on it. We’re going to pursue it.”
Carter said that Chatham planning officials have an eye on the Effingham Parkway, but there are many other projects — such as road work on the southside of Savannah and on the islands and taking Highway 204 all the way to Skidaway Island — vying for their attention and money.
“This is a top priority,” Carter said. “The priority in Chatham may not be as high as Effingham’s, but we’ll continue to push it. They do understand what’s going on. We have to continue to press forward. In all fairness to Chatham County, they have a lot of challenges there.”
Effingham County leaders, recalling what then newly-instated DOT Commissioner Gena Evans said last January, aren’t giving up.
“(She) encouraged us to move forward with the money earmarked for us,” county Commissioner Verna Phillips said.
“We have been focused. Everybody in the county supports it. One thing that frustrates us and the community is what step we’re in and what step is next.”
The next and simultaneous step is to finish the survey of the relocation, Moreland said.
“(We’ll) get the line and grade as we’re finishing the environmental document,” he said. “The environmental document will be done about the same time the preliminary engineering is done.”
From there, the plans will go to the state DOT and to the Federal Highway Administration for review. After that, the right-of-way acquisitions can begin. The alignment of the parkway will be set with the concept report, and the concept report has to be approved by the state DOT and the Federal Highway Administration.
Moreland lauded Effingham’s commissioners for their dedication to pushing the parkway through and for committing a stake of special purpose local option sales tax money.
“It’s a big undertaking for the Effingham Board of Commissioners,” he said. “The county is spending money on it now. The county can’t build the road by themselves.”
The county may be able to tackle engineering and some right-of-way acquisition. But at 16.5 miles, it’s also a big project for these times, he added.
“I believe this project will be OK in the prioritization process,” Moreland said. “It is uncertain times.”
Meanwhile, Effingham’s state legislators say they’ll continue to beat the drum locally and in Atlanta for the Effingham Parkway, pointing out the benefits of having the road built. State Rep. Jon Burns, a former state transportation board member, said the Effingham Parkway will alleviate much of the congestion resulting from the traffic coming in and out of the port of Savannah.
“It’s critical not just for Effingham County but also for the ports,” he said. “It’s a project for Georgia, not just for Effingham County. We have to make sure Chatham County benefits from that project, as well as Effingham County. We have to make sure we continue to hammer on our folks at the state level. It’s an asset to every county in the state.”
Said Carter: “It’s a matter of time and money. The leaders in Chatham are in favor of this, but they have a lot of challenges in Chatham. It is our challenge to make sure they understand how important this is not just to Effingham residents but to Chatham residents.”