Forest Hill delays drive frustration

Long-discussed road work remains stalled

jgaines@macon.comFebruary 16, 2014 

More than a year ago Kenneth Swayne saw the road-construction signs go up along Forest Hill Road near its intersection with Northside Drive.

Then he and his son Kenari, now 2, saw them covered with black plastic. They still pass one sign, though its cover now flaps in the wind, on their walks from Forest Village Apartments to the store.

“We walk to the store every day,” Swayne said.

The signs made it clear some sort of change was in the offing, but nothing happened in the ensuing months.

“We were wondering what they were going to do,” Swayne said.

The sense of uncertainty is widespread.

“All I heard about was they were planning it for about 15 years, and I was wondering when they were going to do it,” said Wayman Coleman, who lives on Forest Hill Road.

Plans to widen Forest Hill Road have been in the works for years, and in December 2012 construction firm J.R. Haynie & Associates, of Lake City, was tapped to begin turning the two-mile stretch from Northside Drive to Wimbish Road into three lanes. Haynie won the contract with an $8.4 million bid, but the first of two court injunctions halted construction before it began.

The injunctions resulted from a lawsuit filed by Lindsay “Doc” Holliday. He argued that the Georgia Department of Transportation’s design was more dangerous than one he preferred, and that it would destroy the road’s tree canopy and pollute its streams. The injunction was granted based on the environmental claims.

Holliday’s litigation expressed the sentiments of a number of residents along Forest Hill Road, whether they directly supported him or not. Those feelings remain, voiced briefly and bluntly by residents such as Durward Boyd.

“We thought (the widening project) was an awful idea. That’s all I’ve got to say,” he said.

Some people who live along the road, however, look forward to the work.

“I’m all for the road, and I’d like to know when they’re going to work on it,” Lula Floyd said. “It needs it. It’s awful out there.”

Residents of Forest Hill Road for a dozen years, she and her husband, John, both want to see it rebuilt, she said.

The Floyds willingly sold a piece of their front yard for the project, but Lula Floyd said she can understand the reluctance or opposition from other residents nearby. The Floyds’ house is set far back from the road, so it won’t affect them much. But the widened road will come up almost to one neighbor’s front porch, she said.

Even so, the work should make travel safer by removing overhanging trees, Floyd said. And last week’s ice illustrated how dangerous those overhanging trees can be on heavily used streets, Floyd said.

“This is a main road, really,” she said.

Holliday lost his case and didn’t appeal by a November 2013 deadline. That lifted the last injunction, and in his last actions Holliday had to work without lawyers because he and his supporters had run out of money.

By then, however, the project already had been pushed back by close to a year. Haynie project manager Mark Spence has said that work would begin by clearing vegetation, building retaining walls and working on culverts. That would clear the way for Georgia Power to start moving poles. In November 2013, Spence said the work of clearing trees might start in December.

That didn’t happen, because the project’s expected cost may be changing. The state is reviewing the delay’s financial impact on contractors, said Kimberly Larson, GDOT communications officer for the west central district.

Originally, Haynie got a notice to proceed in February 2013, with completion scheduled for March 2017, Larson said. The litigation threw that off, and its impact must be considered, too, she said via email.

“We are coming up on 1 year since work on the project was ceased due to the injunction,” Larson wrote. “The Department must come to an agreement on both issues prior to work resuming. We anticipate that this will take several more weeks to resolve.”

Overall, though, the scope of work hasn’t changed, and Larson isn’t aware of any alterations to the existing plan, she said.

Haynie’s price guarantee on materials was only locked in through its originally expected completion date, Spence has said. Thus the cost may need to be renegotiated with suppliers, and Haynie could seek to pass any increase on to GDOT.

“We are still negotiating our return with the Department,” Spence said via email last week.

Holliday said he doesn’t have any immediate plans for further legal action, but another half-dozen landowners on the road have legal standing to seek an injunction against construction.

“Plus I’ve got a pathway for them to follow,” Holliday said.

But even among those who oppose the road work, there’s some desire to just move on.

“I’m not looking forward to it. You can put it that way,” said Grace Sparrow, who lives on Forest Hill Road.

She sold an easement for the road months ago. The loss to Sparrow’s yard doesn’t bother her much, but it does create a new problem.

“I have a terrible steep driveway, and I just dread what they’re going to do there,” she said. Shortening it further will only make her driveway steeper, so she probably won’t even be able to see into her carport as she’s pulling in, Sparrow said.

Now that the decision has been made to widen the road, though, Sparrow said she wants it to be finished as soon as possible. It’s already been delayed long past initial estimates, she said.

“I don’t know, I think DOT has problems,” Sparrow said. “I wish they’d go ahead and get done with me.”

Years ago, when Forest Hill Road plans were first announced, her late husband told her not to hold her breath, Sparrow said.

“I would like to know what’s going on, that’s the main thing,” she said. “Most people are just wondering when it is going to take place.”

The Northside-to-Wimbish stretch isn’t the only part of Forest Hill Road slated for eventual widening. The half-mile section from Wimbish to the corner of Vineville Avenue and Forsyth Road is to be expanded to four lanes. But that work, already planned to be a later phase, appears to be in cold storage as well.

At a Feb. 5 policy meeting of the Macon Area Transportation Study group, Jack Reed, GDOT district planning and programming engineer, said the project schedule for Forest Hill Road work from Forsyth Road to Wimbish Road has been “removed,” with no current activity. The project spreadsheet he presented now lists approved right of way funding for fiscal 2018, and construction funding for fiscal 2020.

Easing heavy traffic is the main justification for the overall project, but that’s not likely to happen soon, whatever its eventual result.

Swayne said that whether he’s walking or driving along Forest Hill Road, he sees fast-moving traffic but can back up quickly, especially behind school buses.

During a year or so of construction work, traffic congestion will only get worse, he said.

“I don’t see how it couldn’t,” Swayne said.

In September 2013, the MATS Citizens Advisory Committee unanimously voted to ask that a designated bicycle lane be added to the entire length of Forest Hill Road. The request said the path should be named for Maj. Wallace Cole Hogan, a cyclist who lived near the road and died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

Jim Thomas, Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission executive director, told the Feb. 5 MATS policy meeting that adding the bike lane would require reconfiguring much of the design, years after plans were finalized.

“Due to all that, it’s just not possible, according to GDOT,” Thomas said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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