People driving through Macon-Bibb County may see construction starting on a major interstate project this spring.
The Interstate 75 and Interstate 16 interchange expansion — decades in the making — is designed to improve safety at the dangerous intersection. The state Department of Transportation has approved the contract for the first phase of work, which includes a new bridge and a park in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood, followed by the widening of I-16 from I-75 to Coliseum Drive.
Construction probably won’t start for a couple of months while a “notice to proceed” is finalized, DOT spokeswoman Kimberly Larson said in an email, letting the contractor know when project work can begin. The first phase is scheduled to be finished in June 2021.
Details on how traffic will be affected during construction will be discussed after the contractor prepares a traffic control plan, Larson said. Construction will be allowed during the day and night, but the contractor won’t be able to set up permanent lane closures.
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In time, traffic will be rerouted to a new bridge while the interstate expansion is under construction. The bridge will eventually become a pedestrian bridge, accommodating nonvehicular traffic along the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail from the east side of the river to the west side. Several exits will be upgraded as part of the project.
The final phases stretch from I-75 around Hardeman Avenue to the I-16 interchange, as well as reconstruction of the interchange.
The project will cost about $495 million, with 80 percent being federal funds and the remainder coming from the state.
“It’ll be much safer and easier to navigate than it is now,” Mayor Robert Reichert said of the expansion. “A secondary benefit will be some of the aesthetics they are adding. You will have a full access interchange from I-16 to Second Street and a full access interchange at Coliseum Drive. There will be a partial one at Spring Street and a much safer ramp from Hardeman Avenue and Forsyth (Street).”
Plans for the interstate expansion date to the 1990s. A DOT district engineer said in a 1994 Telegraph article that the interchange was a priority because “it’s one of the worst interchanges we’ve got in terms of accidents.”
Reichert remembers efforts ramping up by the time he became mayor.
“When I was first elected mayor (in 2007), one of the first things we did as the city of Macon was to agree to maintain certain improvements that would be made in this mitigation project,” he said. “We were to take care of the permanent maintenance after it was built. That was a huge uphill battle because up to that point of time, a lot of people were trying to stop the project, downsize the project.”
The $10 million Pleasant Hill neighborhood mitigation includes building or remodeling about two dozen homes and refurbishing some blocks with new asphalt, sidewalks, lighting and landscaping. The DOT has an agreement with the Macon-Bibb Community Enhancement Authority, which plans to have finished moving seven houses by the end of February. The full mitigation work, which started in December, should be finished by the summer of 2018.
“They won’t start widening the actual highway until they’re well along on some of the mitigation they have to satisfy,” state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon said. “Once they start getting it laid out, they’ll be working simultaneously on the park, the bridge and sound wall.”
Now that mitigation is underway and with construction starting soon, Pleasant Hill residents are starting to see some of the changes taking place, said Peter Givens, president of the Pleasant Hill Neighborhood Improvement Group.
The group has been working with the DOT on the project for about a decade.
“I think it’s necessary for people in the community to have something physical they can see, for them to understand what the overall vision was about,” Givens said. “I think that’s beginning to happen now. I think that’s a very, very good thing.
“We’ve got a long way to go, lot of work to do, but we’ve started on it and that to me is a plus.”
Beverly, who established the authority that is overseeing some of the mitigation work, said he’s pleased with how quickly plans are moving along to start construction. But his attention is more toward making sure the mitigation goes smoothly.
“I’m cautiously optimistic because I’m so focused on making sure we deliver a product that the community is a part of and proud of,” he said.
Reichert urges patience while the project is underway.
“Obviously there will be some inconvenience and delays while construction is going on, but I’m confident the Department of Transportation and contractors will do the best they can to keep traffic moving through the interchange while they rebuild it.”