I think we can all agree that if the government extracts money from our checking accounts via taxes and fees that we should at the very least be able to call for the funds to be used productively and for the benefit of the citizenry.
In my past government positions, I made it publicly clear that you should never trust government and that government officials should have to justify every decision made in their official capacity.
Peachtree City Mayor Kim Learnard recently gave the warning that the Highways 74 and 54 intersection is about to get a lot worse over a 30-month period.
Beware of state agencies bearing gifts
Be careful when the state comes knocking on your door with an unsolicited plan.
Several years ago, GDOT introduced the intersection project at the county government’s transportation committee meeting. I was present at the meeting and challenged the GDOT engineer on the effectiveness of the proposal.
It was immediately clear that the low-budget project proposal did zilch to resolve the core congestion issue with east-west traffic.
It was revealed in the committee meeting by the GDOT engineer that the project was “budget constrained,” meaning they had some funds remaining in an account and the plan was designed to the budget, not toward a long-term solution. GDOT is going to require the city to spend our city tax dollars on the boondoggle as well.
The city’s own hand-picked representative to the county’s transportation committee was present for the remarks from GDOT. The city has known this for several years.
We are getting the loose change that GDOT found under their budget constrained sofa cushions left over from other projects, and not an appropriately funded, legitimate solution.
GDOT’s own material says, “Traffic patterns for those coming from Hwy. 54 will not change.” We are smart enough in Peachtree City to comprehend what “will not change” means. (See: https://thecitizen.com/2023/01/23/councils-hwy-54-74-decision-a-traffic-boondoggle-for-peachtree-city/).
If the displaced left turn lanes on Highway 74 (a design used mainly as a “divergent diamond” for interstate interchanges that have grade separations) does not relieve the congestion burden, especially the east-west bottleneck, will GDOT come running with more money to remedy the situation? Do not count on it.
Mayor Kim Learnard’s excuse
Learnard is attempting to prepare the citizens for the upcoming road construction circus. The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) wants to build displaced left turn lanes on Highway 74 at the intersection of Highways 74 and 54.
“GDOT is paying for this [work] and I expect construction to begin in spring of 2024,” Mayor Learnard said, “and GDOT shared that they expected this to be a 30-month project.” That would put completion of the reconstructed intersection sometime in 2026 (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/09/26/54-74-intersection-makeover-will-start-next-year-mayor-learnard-says/).
Both Learnard and her predecessor Vanessa Fleisch have leaned-in on the project as a means to quell the masses’ frustration regarding traffic congestion. Unfortunately, both Learnard and Fleisch are quick to lay the responsibility for the project at the feet of GDOT because the project does not really solve the core issue hindering traffic, that being the east-west traffic flow. It should help with cars “blocking the box” some but not much more.
I can assure you that the mayor will take no responsibility whatsoever if the 30-months of road construction agony we are about to endure does not produce any significant results. She will just blame GDOT. She will claim the Fleisch administration agreed to the project, not her, even though she could have stopped it and pressed for a real solution.
It is the mayor’s job to battle on behalf of the city for the best solution. It means doing your homework and not taking ‘no’ for an answer.
Hurling our chances away
Only one member of the city council has objected to GDOT’s intersection plan: Clint Holland. Holland has lived up to his campaign promises and pushed for a more long-term solution.
Other members of the city council decry the tens of millions of dollars required for a long-term solution to the intersection congestion.
First, the two highways belong to the state government, and they should cover the bulk of the cost as they do in other counties across the state. Likewise, any additional matching funds from the city could be bonded over decades with the debt service programmed and covered by annual payments from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) revenue.
Using the financial tools that the state provides, local jurisdictions have ample opportunities to commit to a viable long-term transportation solutions.
Learnard insists on private meetings with GDOT at the Thomaston, Georgia office. She keeps most of the details of those meetings hidden from the public. Why would she do that?
Learnard refuses to request that GDOT engineers attend a local city council meeting to answer questions from the council members and the general taxpaying public. Why would she do that?
Not knowing how to play the game
Peachtree City has a failing grade on understanding how the system works and how to use political leverage.
When I was the mayor years ago, I worked with a team of people to secure Regional and GDOT funding for the widening of Highway 54 West, widening of Highway 74 South, new multi-use path tunnels under the highways, and new golf cart bridges over railroad tracks and highways. This was accomplished by researching how other metro counties were able to secure their funding for projects.
I was directly engaged in soliciting assistance from the transportation engineering staff at the Atlanta Regional Commission, the regional government. I met with the GDOT Commissioner and many senior GDOT staff members requesting assistance and pleading the city’s case.
Most importantly, I operated with a coalition of various elected officials to leverage our political capacity at every level. Then-Fayette County Commission Chairman Greg Dunn was helpful with the Atlanta Regional Commission. Then-State Senator Mitch Seabaugh helped leverage our projects with GDOT and state planning. Then-Congressman Lynn Westmoreland assisted with his contacts in the state government. Then-State Representative Dan Lakly wrote letters of support.
And let’s destroy the myth that you must have a close relationship with the other officials to get their assistance. Sen. Seabaugh and I were not fond of one another but we did what needed to be done for the benefit of our constituents.
As the chairman of the Fayette County Board of Commissioners, I worked with Tyrone Mayor Eric Dial and then-State Representative Matt Ramsey to get a long-term solution on the books for the interchange at Highway 74 and I-85. We fought to get the best plan, not the cheapest. Staff from the Atlanta Regional Commission gave us valuable data and helped us identify state funding.
I also went to GDOT Planning Director Toby Carr’s office every other week to fight for the project. Eventually, we got the improved plan for the interchange and $18 million allocated towards right-of-way acquisition and engineering.
The chairman who followed me refused to keep leveraging the interchange project and GDOT began slow walking the project. The squeaky wheel gets the grease and the county government stopped squeaking.
Such coalitions have not existed to propel city transportation projects for 10 to 15 years, at least. The city has little or no clout with the regional and state governments, and it shows. The best they can do is closed door meetings with the District Engineer in the rural Thomaston GDOT office.
The sad consequences
When the upcoming project cannot reduce the east-west traffic congestion, should we expect GDOT to come with more money and a better project? Do not expect anything for a good long while after they just spent 30-months constructing the “budget constrained” project.
To expect GDOT to rip up new construction to implement a better solution in the short or mid-term is inconceivable.
If Learnard tells you that the displaced left turn lanes on Highway 74 are just “phase one,” ask her to show you the phase two plan and ask when GDOT expects to implement it. There is no phase two.
Both the Fleisch and Learnard administrations had the ability to request that the small amount of funding provided by GDOT could be used towards designing and planning for a better long-term solution for the intersection. They refused to do it.
This is more proof that elections matter.
[Brown is a former mayor of Peachtree City and served two terms on the Fayette County Board of Commissioners. You can read all his columns by clicking on his photo below.]