Walker: Interstate project being scaled back

State transportation planners are scaling back a long-planned overhaul of the interchange between Interstates 75 and 16 in Macon, said Larry Walker, Middle Georgia’s representative to the state Department of Transportation board.

Walker said he has been told by a high-level DOT staffer that new designs are being considered because of the project’s $300 million price tag and local opposition.

“My understanding is they are looking at other ways to handle the problems (at the interchange) which, if it can be done, would result in a reduction in the scope of the project and the cost of the project,” Walker said.

DOT spokesman David Spear said, however, that the DOT is still committed to the entire project as designed and shared with the public over the last year. That version, one of almost a dozen that have been considered in the past two decades, includes 14 lanes of interstate and several new bridges across the Ocmulgee River.

Spear said the DOT was filing its required environmental assessment of the full project this week with the Federal Highway Administration.

Brad Hale, the project manager for DOT consultant Moreland Altobelli, said the DOT has asked his company to break the project into six phases, with the most critical problems to be addressed in the earliest phases. He said the company has provided a proposal to DOT in response.

“We haven’t been told to stop work on the overall project or that some of it won’t be built,” Hale said.

If the project is built in phases, Spear said, each phase would probably take two to three years. Due to the cost and the necessity of spreading transportation funding through all the state’s congressional districts, there might be time lags between the phases.

In December, DOT Commissioner Gena Abraham said that the project is now slated to begin in 2018. On this timeline, the very fastest the new interchange could be finished would be 2030, after 12 years of construction.

Hale and Spear said the mitigation promised to the Pleasant Hill neighborhood will be done at the earliest phase possible.

The historic black neighborhood, which was split in two when I-75 was built, would lose more houses in the expansion. The mitigation would include buying out some homes, creating new park space and dampening interstate noise for the neighborhood.

Spear said the other earliest priorities would be the area on I-16 where cars weave dangerously, near the Spring Street exit; the area where the two interstates merge going northbound; and the corridor of I-16 between the Second Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard exits.

He said designers will have to figure out how to break up the larger project without building a temporary solution that would have to be torn down in a few years to accommodate the final design.

Lindsay Holliday, one of many local opponents who have attacked the project’s design as overkill, said he doesn’t think meaningful changes will happen in the design until a new project designer is hired.

“When you get a second opinion from a doctor, you go to a different doctor,” he said. “When you go back to Moreland Altobelli, you always get the same type of answer.”

He added that the long time frame needed to build the giant project in phases will also do harm. “It will damage Macon every day that road is torn up,” he said.

Walker said he met with a DOT official several weeks ago to talk about projects in Middle Georgia that might make the state’s new priority list. He said that list is still fluid, but the Eisenhower Parkway extension and Forest Hill Road widening are not in the mix.

“Probably if it doesn’t make the priority list, most of them are dead,” Walker said. “But if I have strong feelings or local leaders have strong feelings, I will revisit it.”

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.