$1.3 Billion in Chatham County, GA Transportation Projects Laid Out

The plan is meant to address the county's transportation needs for the next 25 years, including the need for safety improvements.

On the morning of Oct. 19, 2007, a tractor-trailer driven by Shayne Steven got stuck with its load extending six feet over railroad tracks on Dean Forest Road.

Stalled traffic blocked Steven from moving the truck forward, while the railroad gate lowered behind him. A 40-car CSX freight train approached.

Steven tried to drive out of the way, but there was nowhere to go.

The train crashed through the trailer, spewing grapefruit juice, chicken grease and 30,000 pounds of powdered PVC plastic upon impact.

Another truck driver was hospitalized, and the crash closed Dean Forest for seven hours.

The accident was one of 81 crashes that occurred from 2006 to 2008 on Dean Forest Road, one of 14 roads found to have the highest crash rates in Chatham County.

The crash data we've compiled as part of the Framework Mobility Plan recently completed by the Coastal Region Metropolitan Planning Organization. The plan is meant to address the county's transportation needs for the next 25 years, including the need for safety improvements.

The federal government requires a new plan every five years for planning organizations to receive funding.

"The last (plan) was pretty good," said Tom Thomson, executive director of the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission. "This one is a lot better -- so we build on the last."

About $1.3 billion in road projects are projected to be constructed using state, federal and local funds. The amount has been adjusted to reflect inflation. In addition to the road projects, planners anticipate about $512 million will be available for public transit, plus about $99 million for non-motorized transportation projects such as bike lanes and sidewalks.

Still, the funding is not enough to address all of Chatham's transportation issues.

An analysis in 2006 found 37 roads were deficient in their ability to accommodate traffic. Funding currently is available for improvements on only six.

In addition, of the 15 high-crash areas, only four road segments have funding for improvements. Remaining problem areas are relegated to the "Vision Plan," with hopes of finding money for them in the future.

"It's possible, if there are significant decisions made both (at the) federal and state level about investing in roads and transit," Thomson said.

Garden City Police Chief David Lyons would like to see a segment of Dean Forest Road about half a mile north of Ogeechee Road straightened as soon as possible. The segment is commonly referred to as "dead man's curve" because of its high accident rate.

"We'd like to see it done now," Lyons said.

As it stands, engineering work to widen Dean Forest will start within the next five years, but construction of the $30 million project is not scheduled to begin until at least 2026.

Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman would also like to see a project constructed earlier.

Buelterman has pushed for new, wider bridges for the Bull River and Lazaretto Creek primarily for safety reasons. The two-lane bridges do not provide enough room to navigate around vehicles following an accident, and passage on and off the island ends up getting blocked.

After some prodding by Buelterman, the projects were added at the last minute, but construction is not scheduled to begin on the $104 million bridges until at least 2016.

"I feel like this was step one," Buelterman said. "Step two is getting it moved up."

One of the plan's near-term construction projects is a $19 million overpass crossing the railroad tracks on Dean Forest Road. Construction of the overpass is scheduled to begin within the next five years.

"They do need something," said Nicholas Strong, a trucker who drives Dean Forest regularly.

Recently, Strong had to wait an hour for two trains to pass. The bridge would help prevent such delays, he said. Also, he said, the overpass would help alleviate maintenance issues caused by the tracks.

One project's construction date remains questionable.

Despite recent funding setbacks for the final phase of the Truman Parkway, planners still have construction of the $128 million project set to begin before 2016. County officials are pinning their hopes on a national stimulus grant being awarded early next year.

Not all of the road projects involve asphalt.

The plan also includes funding for a study and the construction of a $5 million traffic control center. The center would be manned by a staff that monitors traffic congestion using surveillance cameras and sensors, Thomson said. Traffic lights could be manipulated to alleviate that congestion.

In addition, the plan incorporates a policy to make new roads "complete streets" that include sidewalks and bike lanes.

The need for at least one state road project is being questioned.

Sometime before 2016, Whitefield Avenue is scheduled to be widened from Haneys Creek south of Montgomery Crossroad to Ferguson Avenue.

The $20 million project is meant to relieve congestion, but critics say traffic has not been a problem since the Truman Parkway connected to Whitefield in 2005. County Commissioner Helen Stone said the project should be re-examined.

"I don't care if it's state dollars or local dollars, let's be mindful of this money," Stone said. "Is this something that is truly necessary?"

A study of future travel patterns completed in 2000 determined the widening was needed, said project manager Albert Welch, of the Georgia Department of Transportation.

The study did consider the impact of the fourth phase of the parkway, Welch said. In addition, the fifth phase, which will link the parkway from Whitefield to Abercorn, was also taken into account.

The study found that, while some drivers would bypass Whitefield, others -- such as some Abercorn commuters -- would start using it, Welch said.

"If you were to build the Truman Parkway before you widen Whitefield, you would overload an already-stressed facility," he said.

Still, some city officials have questions about the project, said Jenny Payne, Savannah's management services coordinator.

A meeting is being arranged between the city and county to make sure the project incorporates traffic calming standards, such as tree-lined medians and bicycle lanes. Such design standards should encourage drivers to slow down, without reducing capacity, Payne said.

The approved plan is the first phase of bringing the transportation projects to life. The second phase will continue into 2010 and 2011 and include more detailed strategies for implementation.

Nothing is set in stone. History has shown that there are a lot of changes made to past plans, Thomson said. He would like to keep the changes to a minimum, however.

"As director of the (metropolitan planning organization), I'm trying to urge the implementers to keep on a focused path," he said. "If they start a project, finish it."

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