Thursday, May 20, 2010

Experts Warn Floyd and Bartow Residents in for ‘Rude Awakening’ if US 411 Connector is Built

(BUSINESS WIRE)--The US 411 Connector is so poorly designed it could actually exacerbate traffic between Floyd County and Atlanta while causing irreparable harm to the environment in Bartow County. That’s the assessment of experts who detailed substantial deficiencies in Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) plans for the proposed highway from Rome to I-75 during presentations for concerned community and business leaders and elected officials.

Professional engineers (PE) showed that the design of the US 411 Connector alignment currently championed by GDOT – Route D – does not fulfill GDOT’s promise to build a freeway for the residents of Rome and Floyd County that will provide quick, safe access to I-75. Rather, Route D’s complicated interchange requires multiple traffic lights, would not alleviate stop-and-go travel from Rome to I-75, and will actually increase traffic jams on I-75 itself.

“If the goal is to provide direct and efficient access to the interstate from Floyd County, then Route D isn’t it,” said Lee C. Davis, an attorney for the Rollins family, whose Cartersville ranch would be bisected by Route D. “Meanwhile, the residents of Bartow County would see Dobbins Mountain destroyed with collateral damage to aquatic resources while the enormous expense of the project (to blast the mountain away) will siphon money from other needed road projects. Everyone loses with Route D – so you have to wonder why GDOT continues to insist on it.”

Davis notes that in addition to the inferior interchange design, GDOT has inexplicably planned Route D to go through Dobbins Mountain, requiring an 800 foot wide, 125 foot deep gash to be blasted through the Bartow County landmark. That’s roughly equivalent in width to that of four 747s, sitting wingtip-to-wingtip, and in height to a 12 story building.

“There’s a cheaper, more environmentally friendly way to build a road than to blast through Dobbins Mountain, said Pierre Howard, president of the Georgia Conservancy. “The proposed route was a bad idea years ago, and it’s a bad idea now. It is unfair to taxpayers to build the most expensive route that also does the most environmental damage.”

Another proposed route, now known as Route G, a shorter alignment that would have a fraction of the environmental impact, was initially preferred by GDOT; however, the agency abandoned those plans in favor of Route D for reasons it has never fully explained. Route G also could be built for a fraction of the price – $80 million less than Route D.

Inefficient traffic flow

Walter Kulash, PE, a nationally known transportation consultant with more than 30 years of experience in road design, analyzed traffic patterns for Routes D and G. From a traffic management perspective, Kulash said one of the biggest problems is that Route D attempts to combine the 411 Connector, SR 20 and I-75 into a single interchange. The result is an expensive, complicated and unnecessarily hazardous interchange that requires drivers to reduce speeds below those typical for such junctions and negotiate at least one traffic signal. Incredibly, Route D does not provide access from the 411 Connector eastbound to I-75 northbound. GDOT’s plan makes the illogical assumption that people using the road will only want to travel south on I-75.

By comparison, Kulash noted, Route G provides a shorter, more direct route to I-75 and has a simple and dedicated interchange with immediate northbound and southbound access that requires no traffic signals or unusual reductions in travel speeds.

“In my experience with road projects all over the US, whenever you see a design with as many flaws as this – going through a mountain, an inefficient interchange and dubious traffic forecasts – it’s usually the result of politics, private interests – or both,” said Kulash. “Route D is an awful design that is clearly not about helping drivers get to the expressway quickly, and residents of Floyd County are going to be in for a rude awakening if this road is built. But by then, of course, it will be too late.”

Environmental destruction

Tony Greco, a scientist and expert in aquatic biology, described an accumulating chain of impacts to local surface and ground waters resulting from land use changes, including the proposed road. The vast increase in ‘impervious surface’ (i.e. concrete and asphalt) over the land in Bartow County creates additional stormwater runoff, further exacerbated by the steep slopes of the road cuts and paving across Dobbins Mountain.

Greco noted that runoff will not only impact the groundwater aquifer and flood plains, but will have a detrimental effect on threatened species in local waterways that are part of the Etowah River watershed, including species that are unique to this area. As proposed, Route D also requires 13 bridges, most of which are designed to cross streams, wetlands and open water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recognized that shading from such bridges has proven detrimental to aquatic ecosystems.

“The way Route D is designed will require 36 acres of fill to be introduced into local flood plains and that’s just the beginning of a long list of environmental impacts that will be seen in Bartow County,” said Greco. “And unfortunately it is going to be residents of Cartersville that are going to have to live with the consequences of the environmental destruction, not the people passing through on their way to I-75.”

High cost

In addition to substantial traffic and environmental problems, Route D also would be substantially more expensive to build than Route G, according to Chris Harrell, PE, a civil engineer with Summit Engineering Consultants. In an analysis comparing Routes D and G, based on GDOT’s published specifications and cost projections, Harrell found that Route D is 2.5 miles longer than Route G and would require seven more expensive bridges and overpasses.

Harrell noted that Route D also requires the excavation of 5.1 million cubic yards of earth and rock because it is routed through the mountain, while Route G more closely follows the area’s natural topography. To put 5.1 million cubic yards into perspective, that is more that the total amount of concrete (4.3 million cubic yards) used to build Hoover Dam, one of the largest public works projects in U.S. history.

“We developed the same level of engineering designs and cost estimates for Route G that GDOT has published for Route D in order to provide an apples-to-apples comparison,” Harrell said. “The bottom line is: Route D would cost in excess of $80 million more than Route G. GDOT is already short on money so overpaying for this road makes no sense when you look at all of the state’s priorities. Certainly with these flawed designs, commuters are going to get much less than they’ve been promised.”

Unanswered questions

Among those in attendance, members of the Coalition for the Right Road (CORR) made clear that they are not opposed to the US 411 Connector project but wonder why GDOT is insisting on Route D in light of its higher cost, environmental impact and the fact it will not provide ease of travel to I-75.

“For a lot of people the 411 Connector project is starting to be a little too reminiscent of the Northern Arc debacle – where the lack of any credible explanation ultimately revealed a slew of insider deals and GDOT pandering to special interests,” Davis said.

“But a closer examination of this project should make anyone suspicious and deeply concerned. Here again, GDOT has not provided a credible explanation for why it wants Route D instead of Route G, which is shorter and cheaper and could be built sooner. Route G would actually get the folks in Rome the road they want – and deserve – years faster, without unnecessary court battles. You have to wonder – is there something about Route D we don’t know? And you have to ask, who is going to benefit if Route D gets built? It’s sure not going to be residents of Floyd and Bartow counties.”

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