Forest Hill Road plans put on hold once again

pramati@macon.comAugust 7, 2013 

Work on Forest Hill Road could be pushed back by as much as four years after a committee voted Wednesday to defer plans to widen the road.

Members of the Macon Area Transportation Study committee voted 8-7 to remove the Forest Hill project from the state’s Transportation Improvement Program that covers the next four years.

Bibb County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards made a motion to move the Forest Hill Road and Interstate 16/Interstate 75 improvement projects from the state’s short-range programs for fiscal years 2014-17. Both projects remain in the state’s long-term plans.

After about an hour of debate, the committee agreed to push back the Forest Hill Road project for at least a year, when the committee can revisit the issue.

Edwards noted that the state is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with longtime neighborhood activist Lindsay “Doc” Holliday over the fate of Forest Hill Road.

While everyone who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting said everyone agrees that improvements are necessary, Holliday and other residents object to the scope of the DOT’s plans for the Forest Hill neighborhood. Holliday has argued for smaller-scale changes, noting that he thinks the state’s design is unsafe and would destroy many trees along the road.

By deferring a vote on changes to Forest Hill Road, Edwards said many of the issues between the state and residents may be ironed out in the court’s ruling, giving committee members a better sense of what changes may be necessary.

“There are lots of questions that need to be addressed,” Edwards said. “Deferring it allows time for the DOT to make a sell to the citizens. In the case of Forest Hill Road, the lawsuit that’s pending might resolve some issues.”

Several Forest Hill Road residents addressed the committee before the vote, all of whom object to the current plans for the road, which calls for the road to have four- and seven-lane stretches in some places.

Calder Clay, a former Macon councilman and former Bibb commissioner, said it would cost about $8 million to widen a stretch of roadway that’s about six-tenths of a mile.

“It’s dividing a neighborhood, my neighborhood,” he said. “Is this the right thing to do for the entire community?”

Bibb Commissioner Gary Bechtel, who doesn’t serve on the MATS committee but whose district includes Forest Hill Road, agreed with deferring the widening work.

“I believe the plan is over-designed,” he said, adding that a three-lane road with a median would serve the neighborhood better that the current proposed design.

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, the MATS chairman, said before the vote that the final draft of the Transportation Improvement Program still requires a 30-day public comments period, which would allow residents to offer suggestions for changes to the draft. But Macon Councilman Henry Ficklin said residents along Forest Hill Road and other neighborhoods have been raising objections to DOT plans for years and have had little effect on the plans.

Tony Rojas, executive director of the Macon Water Authority, said that previous DOT plans have been approved by local officials.

“We’re just as responsible as the DOT,” he said.

Macon City Councilman Rick Hutto said DOT plans for Forest Hill Road and the I-16/75 interchange are much too big in scope and often have a negative effect on surrounding neighborhoods. Hutto said he had similar concerns about the interchange as those of Forest Hill Road residents.

“Yes, (the interchange) needs to be fixed, but we have to scale it back,” he said, noting that the proposed plan would make for a wider interstate than the current I-75/I-85 lanes between Georgia Tech and downtown Atlanta. “This is a half-billion dollar project that would destroy all of the neighborhoods around it. The neighborhoods have asked over and over to scale it down. ... They are paying for it by cutting out other projects. Let’s do what we’re supposed to do and listen to the people who elected us and appointed us.”

After the meeting, Holliday said he and his supporters got a minor victory with the decision to defer the Forest Hill Road work. Holliday sued the state in December to stop work on the road and won injunctions since then. The lawsuit is yet to be decided.

“We’ve been in this for the long haul for 20 years,” he said.

With Wednesday’s changes, the committee unanimously approved the final draft of the Transportation Improvement Program, which included adding an amended plan that calls for mitigation improvements for the Pleasant Hill neighborhood on each side of the I-75 corridor for about a half-mile. The improvements are designed to offer relief to Pleasant Hill residents from issues that go back to the construction of the interstate decades ago.

Those improvements, which will cost $11.6 million over fiscal 2015 and 2016, include covering an existing concrete drainage channel; adding a linear park with a 10-foot trail in an area bounded by the interstate, First Avenue, Walnut Street and the former drainage channel; resurfacing of First and Second avenues; and streetscaping a route through Pleasant Hill.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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