Moderated by Tom Sabulis
The Rollins family, the pest-control company clan, has been fighting the Georgia Department of Transportation over the state’s chosen route for the U.S. 411 Connector, which will connect Rome to I-75. Today, an attorney representing the Rollins ranch calls for a compromise route, while GDOT responds.
Commenting is open below Russell McMurry’s column.
By Henry Parkman
The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is so out of touch that it has no problem spending more than $100 million to save drivers a tiny bit of time — 24 seconds, according to studies — on a trip from Rome to Atlanta. GDOT apparently has not learned much from the defeat of T-SPLOST last summer.
The U.S. 411 Connector was the centerpiece of the T-SPLOST list of northwest Georgia projects totaling $1.4 billion. The primary beneficiaries of the 411 Connector, Floyd County residents, overwhelmingly voted against T-SPLOST, even after GDOT touted the department’s version of the Connector in a presentation to the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce.
GDOT should now demonstrate that it can be a good steward of public funds, which would go a long way toward building its credibility.
The 411 Connector project is a perfect example of GDOT’s “my way or the highway” mentality. GDOT selected Route D, the most expensive route, from several alternatives in 2007. A great deal has changed since then. The economic climate is very different, and funding for road projects is scarce in the aftermath of the recession.
Route D was routed directly through Dobbins Mountain as well as a historic manganese mining site. The Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places found that the Dobbins Mining Landscape, an area of over 200 acres, is entitled to protection under a federal law. Federal law now calls for GDOT to abandon Route D and select another alternative, yet GDOT insists on maintaining its route.
GDOT’s Route D presents yet another significant problem that likely will lead to a federal agency rejection. Massive excavation through Dobbins Mountain will uncover acid-producing rock. Dobbins Mountain is in an area known for several minerals, some of which produce harmful acid following exposure. To obtain approval of Route D, GDOT is required (but has failed) to assure the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that any acid drainage will not harm the Cherokee darter, a fish on the Endangered Species List.
Finally, another alternative can be built to avoid Dobbins Mountain and to connect Rome to I-75 at less than half the cost. Route G, the most direct route to I-75 and GDOT’s first choice years ago, would be 2.4 miles shorter and have half the number of expensive bridges. It would save taxpayers over $100 million, yet would only take 24 seconds longer than a trip on Route D. Route A, which utilizes existing roads, is another viable alternative.
There is broad support for a better route, including from the Georgia Conservancy, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation and local residents, many of whom are members of the Coalition for the Right Road (CORR). Even David Doss, formerly on the State Transportation Board and once a proponent of Route D, has recently called for a compromise route.
With all the economic, environmental and cultural resource issues plaguing Route D, a decision by GDOT to continue pushing that route would lead to the waste of more time and money. It’s time for GDOT to select a cheaper, better alternative.
Henry Parkman, a partner in the Litigation Group at Sutherland, represents the owners of Cartersville Ranch, an 1,800-acre property that would be bisected by the U.S. 411 Connector.
By Russell McMurry
The Georgia Department of Transportation strives to bring projects of value and significance to the citizens of this state and all who use Georgia’s infrastructure. Numerous factors comprise the decision-making process in bringing a project to fruition, but one thing is consistent: All proposed projects must have a clearly defined need and purpose, and the design solution must satisfy its purpose for 20 years.
The current U.S. 411 Connector project started in 1993 as a regional mobility and connectivity initiative along with congestion relief benefits. The region had a growing population, an important business base that included manufacturers with freight movements, and a need for improved travel options from Rome to I-75.
In fact, easier access to Georgia ports and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was a driving consideration in the 411 Connector project advancing to the environmental process. The project is a federally funded project, which means full federal authority and oversight of all work related to it. Project costs would be paid with 80 percent federal dollars and 20 percent state funds.
An Environmental Impact Study was undertaken in accordance with federal laws and regulations, and was reviewed and approved by state and federal agencies. The department’s analysis was based on sound engineering principles, environmental impact and objective comparison of the alternatives to satisfy the intended need and purpose of the project. The entire environmental process is a tool for decision making. The whole progression was transparent and open to the public and included websites, a hotline telephone number, newsletters, flyers and focus groups with the impacted communities.
Multiple public information meetings were held detailing project alternatives, and a 27-member citizens advisory group was established. Ultimately, in 2009, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) reached a Record of Decision supporting the Environmental Impact Statement that determined the preferred route of U.S. 411, Route D-VE.
Challenges to the project and certain circumstances, such as new environmental requirements, have slowed the project. As such, Georgia DOT has made numerous adjustments and will continue to do so to ensure the project’s purpose can be achieved. Along the way, all federal rules and requirements have been followed and will continue to be followed.
Currently, the department is re-evaluating the environmental impact based on other routes in the Dobbins Mine area. The goal is to complete that work by the end of this year, so that impacts and mitigation may be assessed and forwarded to FHWA for review and concurrence.
Planning and constructing any large infrastructure project is often a long journey with many challenges, and the Georgia Department of Transportation is committed to providing a safe, connected and environmentally sensitive transportation system that enhances Georgia’s economic competitiveness.
Russell McMurry is chief engineer at the Georgia Department of Transportation.