Congestion Junction: Gray’s traffic-bottleneck won’t likely go away anytime soon

GRAY — At the six-way intersection here where U.S. 129, amid a labyrinth of asphalt and stoplights with a rail crossing thrown in, hooks a left toward Lake Sinclair and Eatonton, the inevitable — and occasionally colossal — traffic tie-ups seem a bit out of place.

Since when do crossroads in 2,800-population towns composed of barely two-and- a half square miles become congestion junctions?

Over the years, the spot where on any given morning or afternoon Gray’s main drag can go from backroads byway to bottlenecked pain in the neck has become a fact of life for locals and passers-through alike.

The intersection’s overhead tangle of traffic signals looks more like the ceiling of a TV studio as autos from half a dozen different directions converge at the tracks between the Sassy & Classy Salon & Spa, the Crossing gas mart and a block-long stretch of storefronts on the aptly named Atlanta Road.

“If those lights go out or the train arm goes down, it’s a big ordeal with all those routes tying into one spot,” Gray Police Chief Adam Lowe said recently. “A lot of people don’t realize how much traffic goes through here headed up to I-20. ... It’s not gotten to the point where it’s a big headache for us, but I guess we’re used to it.”

Plans are in the works for a northern bypass, but officials say it’s anyone’s guess when funding for the proposed road will come through. For now and for the foreseeable future, the intermittent Gray gridlock likely will continue.

Jones County Administrator Mike Underwood attributes some of the clogging to tractor-trailer drivers making wrong turns and blocking traffic on smaller side streets at the intersection. He said the drivers often rely on their in-cab navigational gizmos that don’t always make clear which road at the jumbled intersection they need to take.

“They’ve torn down that railroad crossing arm I guarantee you four or five times,” Underwood said.

Even when there are no mishaps, wait times at the intersection’s red lights typically are in the two-minute range, often longer. During the lunch hour on a Monday earlier this year, drivers coming into town on the Milledgeville highway routinely sat at the light for two-and-a-half minutes.

While it may not sound all that long, keep in mind that was when traffic volume was pretty much at a trickle.

Becky Pressley, a clerk at the Crossing mart, said, “It takes a long time for that light to change. ... I hate that red light, I really do.”

At the Just For Me beauty parlor next door, hairdresser Andrea Richardson said, “We already know certain times of the day, around 4 o’clock, that everybody’s just getting off work and it’s full. You have to really pay attention, especially if you don’t know this area.”

Not too long ago, a truck hauling a boat apparently took a wrong turn and tried to cut across the tracks at a small crossing a block north of the intersection and got stuck. The stores that face the tracks have a street that runs behind them that for years served as a cut-through for northbound drivers trying to avoid the light. City officials have since made the street a one-way route in the other direction.

Rick Childs, who along with his wife, Paige, runs antiques shop Treasures by the Tracks, said, “I’ve noticed some people still go the wrong way. I told one guy, ‘They’ll fine you $117.’ He said, ‘It’s worth $117 just not to have to wait in all that traffic.’ ”

Said Childs: “A lot of people will turn down there by the Baptist church and go in behind our store and go different ways to beat the traffic. So I’ll be glad one day to have the bypass eliminate all this traffic downtown.”

The Childs, who also run a soup-and-sandwich nook out of their shop, put up a “Cafe” sign in their front window to attract customers who might glance their way.

“We get out of town customers come in and say, ‘We were just sitting in traffic and saw your sign,’ ” Paige Childs said.

At Kema’s Hobby Books & More, owner Kema Clark said, “If we had the bypass and just the semis went around, I would be perfectly happy. I get between 25 to 35 percent of my business from people just passing through Gray. Everybody comes through here going from up north to Florida. They want to skip I-75 and they don’t want to go through Atlanta. ... They get stopped at this red light, and they look over and see the bookstore and come right over.”

Clark, who has been in business there four years, added, “When you’ve got this many major roads coming into one spot, you’re gonna have traffic. That’s just the way it is. You’ve got five or six main roads coming into a half a block area. I don’t know of any way to avoid traffic. ... Just because you don’t associate traffic with small towns, people who live in other cities, they would think this was a piece of cake. ‘I had to wait two minutes at a red light? Hallelujah!’ ”

Locals know shortcuts to skirt the snag, but sometimes there is no avoiding the crossroad.

“We try to go the back way if we can,” Mayor Gus Wilson said. “But it’s a mess out there in the afternoon and morning rush. You’ll sit through two or three lights coming from Milledgeville to go to Macon.”

But, the mayor said, “It’s been that way so long, people don’t gripe about it as much because I guess they’re just used to it.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.