DOT hides behind red tape while pleas from local officials go unanswered
Traffic fatalities are always tragic for the families of drivers, regardless of which driver caused the wreck, but can a state agency be at fault?
Local officials have warned the Georgia Department of Transportation since plans became available for the North Gray Bypass – soon to be known as Veterans Memorial Parkway.
After another fatal accident Monday morning, the DOT may be paying attention. State Rep. Susan Holmes said by text message that a four-way stop would be installed due to the persistence of our state representatives and local leaders.
At the scene of Monday’s accident, Jones County Sheriff Butch Reece said he has been calling the DOT about the bypass since December. Over the weekend, he looked for bypasses in other communities to see how they compare.
“I rode bypasses Saturday all the way up to Greensboro, over to Augusta, to see what they’re doing,” he said. “None of them are set up like ours.”
Before the bypass opened in December, the project manager for the bypass, Devin Snell of E.R. Snell Contracting, Inc., expressed concern about three major intersections because of newly installed stop signs.
During construction, traffic on Greene Settlement Road, Old Highway 18 and U.S. 129 – also known as Eatonton Highway – passed construction of the four-lane highway without stop signs. The signs went up less than a week before the new road opened.
“If people don’t stop at these crossroads, accidents will happen,” Snell said.
The bypass officially opened Dec. 15, after signs originally said the road would open Dec. 13. For days, deputies of the Jones County Sheriff’s Office directed traffic at the intersection of the bypass and Eatonton Highway due to confused traffic.
On the morning of Feb. 9, two men died at the intersection where law enforcement officials have reported accidents and near misses since the bypass opened.
In a phone interview Friday morning, Holmes agreed something has to happen.
“I spoke to Mike Presley, district engineer for DOT, this morning,” she said. “I’ll talk to other people today to make sure something is done.”
When will that happen?
“They’re already studying options,” Holmes said. “They need either a roundabout or traffic light.”
She said the DOT has rules and regulations that keep them from moving quickly.
“But, rest assured [State Rep.] Bubber Epps and I are pushing this,” she said. Epps represents the remainder of Jones County.
When asked what people can do, Holmes said she and Epps are available to listen to any issues.
“But, my personal opinion is, petitions and calling the DOT may not help,” she said. “Your commissioners and state representatives are doing everything we can.”
Jones County Commission Chairman Chris Weidner said Friday he had spoken to Craig Collins, who works for the DOT and lives in Jones County.
So far, Weidner said Collins returns calls when he tries to reach Presley at the DOT’s district office in Thomaston.
“They’re looking at short-term and long-term options,” he said. “I told them to expect letters from the county, the sheriff and police department.”
Weidner added that Collins is on the agenda for the next meeting of the Jones County commissioners, which is Feb. 21.
County Commissioner Sam Kitchens spoke up Thursday, saying the accident proves warnings of accidents before the bypass ever opened were valid.
“Concerns over these intersections have been discussed numerous times, but today’s tragedy validates our biggest fears,” he said. “We need to explore all options to improve safety. I, too, have ridden the bypass at different times of the day to observe traffic conditions and have serious concerns with the distance across at the intersections.
“My personal opinion is that, without some type of signalization, we will see more accidents at these crossings.”
Later Friday, Holmes said she and Epps had a meeting set up with Georgia DOT Commissioner Russell R. McMurry this week and would keep local officials and The Jones County News updated.
While there are no fatalities to date at the Gray Highway intersection of the bypass, more than a dozen accidents have happened since the new road opened.
Gray Police Chief Adam Lowe said he has met with five engineers from the DOT, but each one sends their findings up to the next person.
He added that he has written letters to State Reps. Susan Holmes and Bubber Epps about the intersections with Gray Highway and Highway 18 West for drivers traveling from Macon.
“The green turn arrow from Gray Highway onto the bypass is only on for 15 seconds,” he said. “When that signal turns off, the southbound signal goes green.”
He said that’s not enough time for cars to get across the intersection. He also said the issue comes down to money.
“They’ve already spent so much money on the bypass that they have to get approval from Atlanta to do anything,” he said.
Lowe also said the bypass as a whole is too dark at night. Each intersection is completely dark at night, making it nearly impossible to see the lines.
“The road is concrete instead of asphalt,” he said. “The road is white, so the white lines don’t show up. You’re not sure if you’re in a safety zone or not.”
Lowe said the turn lanes coming from Macon are not long enough, so if traffic backs up turning up onto the bypass, other cars would have little time to react after topping the hill just before the bypass intersection. That problem is worse for 18-wheelers.
Plans are also underway to increase the speed limit on Gray Highway to 65 from 55, which could make the intersection with the bypass worse.
“I got a call in November that the signs were ordered to raise the speed limit,” the police chief said. “The DOT is waiting on caution lights to go up at Joycliff Road before the speed limit changes.”
Once that happens, he said traffic could legally travel at 75 mph until cresting the hill before the bypass.
Lowe said a caution light is needed at Greene Settlement Road in addition to the problems at Eatonton Highway. As of Friday, he said there have been six accidents.
Thankfully, none of those have been fatal.
-- Josh Lurie | firstname.lastname@example.org