Better start to Forest Hill, Phase II

Could it be (gasp)? Is it possible (cough), that highway and byway planners of this state learned a lesson? While the jury is still out, the preliminary process for the next phase of the Forest Hill Road redo is being better received than past iterations — of which there have been many.

A little history. Forest Hill Road has been at the epicenter of road controversy in what was then the city of Macon since the 1994 Road Improvement Program, a special purpose local option sales tax that was leveraged with state money to a sum of $300 million. The first plans for the “improvement of Forest Hill Road were revealed 19 years ago that called for a five-lane boulevard from Vineville Avenue to Northside Drive. What’s more, the design would require, beyond the five lanes, an extra 15 feet right-of-way on each side of the road.

The plan, at the time, was to make Forest Hill Road part of a major north-south corridor connecting north Macon with the Macon Mall via Log Cabin Road that would later be called the Northwest Parkway. The state estimated that traffic would increase along this thoroughfare to 31,000 vehicles per day by 2021 from Vineville to Wimbish and 19,000 from Wimbish to Northside, almost triple for the first section and double for the second section.

The Road Improvement Program, of which Forest Hill Road was a part, is responsible for creating CAUTION Macon (Citizens Against Unnecessary Thoroughfares in Our Neighborhoods Macon). Why? The Georgia Department of Transportation was not known for being neighborhood friendly. Citizens didn’t feel they were being heard by local elected officials, either. In the late 1990s, GDOT had a distinctive take-it-or-leave-it attitude. If GDOT said an area needed five or six lanes, it needed five or six lanes, period, end of story. GDOT would hold perfunctory public meetings but its attitude was clear: We’re engineers and you’re? — well, nobody. And if you want state money, you will do it our way. That softened the backbone of local officials all across the state.

Oh what a change a couple of decades can bring. GDOT traffic estimates for Forest Hill Road were highly inaccurate and there’s no longer a need for a five-lane Northwest Parkway if there ever was one. Now a new design is in the works, a design unveiled last week to a mostly receptive audience. The preliminary drawings included something highway planners, just a decade earlier, were loathe to consider: a roundabout.

The Road Improvement Program, of which Forest Hill Road was a part, is responsible for creating CAUTION Macon (Citizens Against Unwanted Thoroughfares in Our Neighborhoods Macon).

There was no formal presentation, just information gathering and conceptual designs that looked nothing like those of the past. Forest Hill from Vineville Avenue to Wimbish Road is three lanes instead of four or five. There were several streets north of Ridge Avenue in previous drawings that were to be cul-de-sacs, now there is just one at Drury Drive. That may need to be reconsidered due to traffic concerns along The Prado and Overlook Avenue. There is also a concern, if a roundabout is used rather than a traffic signal at Wimbush and Forest Hill roads, that a signal at Charter Boulevard just 50 or so yards from the roundabout could create traffic backups.

Macon-Bibb County Engineer David Forston and the design team at Stantec Consulting Inc., are to be congratulated for a good first step in a long process of transparency. That door of communication has to remain open. Phase 1 of the Forest Hill Road project might be completed 20 years after the original plan was revealed. Phase II, won’t even begin until 2020 at the earliest. If citizens are kept abreast of what’s going on, the project will be less of a headache for everyone involved, and even though the construction period will be full of bumps and potholes, drivers will look forward to the day they can say that it is finally finished.