Behind-the-scenes negotiations date back decades before construction on Interstates 75 and 16 began last summer.
During the last 15 months, construction crews have made headway on the first several phases of the intestate expansion that are expected to be completed in 2021. There will be three additional phases that will be put out for construction bids in 2021 and 2023.
Once the entire project is finished, the interstate system heading in and out of the city’s core will look drastically different, said state Sen. David Lucas, a Macon Democrat who has been involved in the project’s negotiations for most of his 40-plus years in state government.
It wasn’t easy path to get the project approved and construction started. Because most of the money the Georgia Department of Transportation has for the expansion trickled down from the federal government, negotiations involved leaders on a national, state and local level, Lucas said.
Lucas’s ties to the interstate project includes his father, also named David Lucas, who was involved in helping the Pleasant Hill community when the interstate split up the neighborhood when it originally was built. The pedestrian bridge in Pleasant Hill is named after the elder Lucas.
“Over 30 years I was told by a lot of my friends and family, ‘Man, you’ll be dead and gone before that would ever happen,’ ” the younger Lucas said. “When we got the OK and money and everything for the project, I said I wish they were still living just to see it happen. As I turn the corner, you’re happy to see that 16 and 75 is getting straightened out.”
In total, the construction work on first three phases will cost $211 million to complete. There’s also the $12 million mitigation effort in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood, which includes two new parks, infrastructure improvements and turning the childhood home of Little Richard into a community resource center.
Currently, construction crews are working on the bridge located on I-16 eastbound near Spring Street as well as on retaining walls between Spring Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Grading is being done at the I-16 exit and Spring Street ramp while construction on the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard bridge over the Ocmulgee River also is underway, GDOT spokeswoman Penny Brooks wrote in an email.
Also, Walnut Street bridge over I-75 is being demolished and installation of the deck framework on the Riverside Drive bridge is underway.
Highlights of the first three phases, according to GDOT, include:
Improvements to 1.5 miles of I-16 eastbound between I-75 and Coliseum Drive;
One-mile of improvements on I-75 North from Hardeman Avenue to the southern limit of the I-16 interchange;
Following the split to I-16 East, there will be two lanes on I-75 northbound and two lanes on the I-16 eastbound collector distributor road, meaning additional lanes will be added to get people from the interstate to neighborhoods; and
The exit to I-16 East from I-75 South will shift north, and the entrance ramp from I-16 West to I-75 South will shift south.
The final phase includes 2.7 miles of improvements to I-16 westbound from I-75 to Walnut Creek.
‘A first-class transportation facility’
The expansion is designed to improve safety for motorists and the increasing number of tractor trailers traveling to and from the Savannah port and other places.
There also will be improvements done to 11 bridges and the addition of an exit along with other upgrades to interstate exit ramps.
The project does present some logistical challenges, said Tom Moreland, who spent 30 years working with GDOT, eventually rising to chief engineer and the agency’s commissioner.
He later was involved with the interstate project through his engineering firm Moreland Altobelli Associates.
“From an engineering standpoint, it’s challenging with two interstate highways boxed in by the Ocmulgee River, the historic cemetery and the railroad,” Moreland said.
He credits many officials with helping the project come to fruition, including Lucas, Mayor Robert Reichert, and County Commissioner Bert Bivins.
There were some bumps in the road as people like Lucas and others spent years trying to get it started.
“When you start rebuilding something, you have so many stakeholders, and it’s hard to get them satisfied,” Moreland said. “Yes, it’s been a long process, but I think it was a good process. I think both the users of the road and the community will feel good when it’s completed.
“It really gives the community a first-class transportation facility.”
There was some contention about the plans from some residents of the Shirley Hills neighborhood who were concerned the expansion would become Spaghetti Junction in Atlanta, Lucas said.
A meeting between then-GDOT commissioner Wayne Shackelford, who served in that role from 1991-2000, and Moreland was key to having the interstate project added to the transportation plan, Lucas said.
At one point, the estimated cost was slightly under $300 million, but as years went by, its cost essentially doubled by the time the green light was given, he said.
The expansion “is a major accomplishment because we’ve done things in Macon in spite of ourselves,” Lucas said.