DOT’s Walker ‘appalled’ to be in dark about Riverside/I-75 plan

Residents and business owners who were surprised to learn about a massive overhaul of Interstate 75 along Riverside Drive that’s set to start this summer were not alone: Larry Walker, vice chairman of the state transportation board, says he was kept in the dark, too.

In a pointed letter mailed Tuesday to acting Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Gerald Ross, Walker wrote he was “appalled” to learn about the project from an article in The Telegraph.

“I am appalled that all of this is going on with little or nothing having ever been said to me about it,” Walker wrote. “In fact, I am embarrassed.”

The project includes widening I-75 to six lanes from south of Pierce Avenue to north of Arkwright Road; rebuilding and relocating the southbound exit and entrance ramps near Pierce Avenue; and widening and rebuilding several bridges on and over the interstate. Bids have not been taken on the project, which is expected to start sometime this summer.

“As the board member from this district, with a project of this significance, someone should have kept me informed,” Walker, a former state legislator from Perry who represents the board’s 8th Congressional District, said Tuesday afternoon.

“Somebody should have updated me about this. This is a very big project,” he said. “There’s too much of that going on, the board not being informed and, in some instances, the citizens not being informed.”

Ross responded to Walker’s letter, saying in a statement that most of the planning for the project happened before Walker was elected to the board in 2007.

“Mr. Walker was not aware of the department’s decision to move forward with the project,” Ross said. “The environmental process and most public hearings preceded Mr. Walker’s appointment to the state Board of Transportation. We have not let (solicited bids on) the project.”

Still, Walker was not happy.

“I’m familiar with the project to the extent that I saw it in the paper,” he said.

Susan Hanberry-Martin, a member of the citizens group CAUTION Macon, said she attended a preliminary meeting on the project several years back, although she could not recall how long ago. She was one of about 20 people, called “stakeholders,” chosen for a project development team to provide input during the early planning stages. She said several public meetings were held.

“They were open but not advertised,” she said. The team included representatives from a local neighborhood group and area businesses but, according to Hanberry-Martin, was “stacked” with members from the local planning and zoning board and the DOT.

The team, she said, also included a consultant from Boise, Idaho, who proposed a concept for the project that addressed some concerns by local members, including an improved entrance to the then-planned Water Works Park off the northbound exit at Pierce Avenue.

Members voted in favor of that concept, but they were overruled by the state because that plan “cost too much,” she said.

The final design shifts the on and off ramps for I-75 South up Riverside Drive, across from the Riverstreet Corners shopping center.

Riverside Drive will be expanded in that area to include dual left-turn lanes and single right-turn lanes onto the new ramps and into the shopping center.

As a result, nearby Lee Road will be restricted to right-hand turns only.

“We didn’t even see real drawings. They were lines on paper, concepts,” Hanberry-Martin said. “I don’t recall that we ever talked about Lee Road.”

Hanberry-Martin also serves on the Macon Area Transportation Study committee.

She does not recall the Pierce Avenue to Arkwright Road project ever being discussed.

“They didn’t bring any of this up with that committee, either. It just sort of fell off the radar.”

That might be because the project was overshadowed by the controversial I-16/I-75 interchange project, she said.

“They did not plan it with the I-16/I-75 interchange, but they sort of talked about it at the same time,” she said. “All of that should have been part of some holistic plan, but ... it was segmented out.”

Construction on the Riverside/I-75 project is expected to take about three years.

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.