The Georgia Department of Transportation's two-state plan on the Polk County, Tennessee/Fannin County, Georgia line for a truck bypass and road improvements has been delayed by impacts from the coronavirus, and now the work is being split into separate projects.
The delay is the bad news, but there's some good news, too.
The total estimated cost of the projects - now divided along the state line - has dropped more than $12 million to an estimated $31 million from its original $43.4 million projected price tag in 2018, according to GDOT spokesperson Joseph Schulman.
The divided project cost now is estimated at $9 million for the first project on the McCaysville, Georgia, side and $22 million for the second project on the Copperhill, Tennessee, side, where a large loop from Georgia into Tennessee will take big trucks around the two towns, Schulman said.
The decrease came in refining the details.
"As the design progresses, more is known about the project and the estimate is refined," Schulman said Thursday. "Costs also vary based off of the fluctuation of materials costs."
The state is acquiring land for the project but that process is slowed by the pandemic, Schulman said.
"Out of the total of 132 parcels for both projects, we currently have acquired 82," he said.
"The department is sensitive to the need for social distancing due to COVID-19. Typically we meet with citizens in person for right-of-way negotiations," Schulman said. "Because we wish to negotiate in good faith, we are consulting with [the Federal Highway Administration] on alternative options to engage with citizens."
Schulman said that because of COVID-19 and associated closures of local government offices, GDOT's team has struggled.
"This was unexpected and has delayed the right-of-way acquisition process. However, the department is making every effort to be ready to let the first project to construction in May 2021," Schulman said. But because the virus's future impact is unknown, he said, the May date "may not be achievable" and a new date might have to be set.
The $22 million portion of the work on the Tennessee side is projected to be let for bids in 2023, Schulman said.
In 2018, GDOT officials said there was "an ever-increasing need to improve the flow of traffic in the corridor's area, truck traffic in particular."
The projects seek to solve the snag in downtown McCaysville/Copperhill, where Georgia State Route 5 dead-ends into Tennessee Highway 68/Georgia State Route 60 in a two-way, two-lane intersection nearly on top of the state line. That forces big rigs to hang a hard left going north or a hard right going south in close quarters with local traffic and downtown businesses.
Georgia work, to be done first, will consist of improvements along existing Georgia State Route 5 from Old Flowers Road to Georgia State Route 60, where a roundabout will be built literally a few feet south of the Tennessee line, replacing the current traffic signal-style intersection, plans show.
› The Georgia Department of Transportation’s proposed two-lane McCaysville/Copperhill truck route project in Fannin County, Georgia, and Polk County, Tennessee, seeks to improve truck traffic with a new road for trucks to use to bypass the twin cities on the Tennessee-Georgia border while also improving the roadway through both towns.*Total estimated cost: $31,183,628.17* Bridge length: 0.2 miles* Proposed roadway length: 2.8 miles* Total project length: 3 miles* Number of parcels involved: 132* Potential displaced residents: 3* Construction time: 36 months* Current traffic count: 8,550 vehicles per day* 2044 projected traffic count: 10,650 per day (20 years after project is completed)Source: Georgia Department of Transportation
Also included in the proposed project are 5-foot-wide sidewalks on the McCaysville portion along State Route 5 coming into town from the south. The sidewalks will have a 2-foot grass buffer between the sidewalk and curb and the road itself will be improved to new standards, according to project documents.
From the roundabout on the Georgia side, the $22 million proposed bypass into Tennesseee swings a couple of miles to the west side of the two towns before crossing the Ocoee River and railroad tracks on a new bridge that loops back through another big rig-sized roundabout onto State Route 68 in Copperhill. No sidewalk work is proposed for the Tennessee portion of the project.
Copperhill Mayor Kathy Stewart was excited about the project for the potential economic benefits it could bring to both towns. But she said she hadn't heard any new information on plans from either state, although she has seen some homes demolished on acquired property on the Georgia side, she said.
"With COVID everything was on stop and we all know that," Stewart said, but she's optimistic about the project's eventual impact.
"With the traffic now with more tourism - just like the bypass at Blue Ridge [Georgia] - it will take a lot of the heavy traffic out of Copperhill and McCaysville, and I feel confident that tourists will come down into our community to enjoy the old, small-town feeling," Stewart said. "But it will take those heavy trucks out."
Stewart said there's plenty of Georgia non-truck traffic headed for North Carolina that will have to pass through both towns instead of using the planned bypass.
The truck route idea has been a local topic of conversation since the 1950s, according to McCaysville Mayor Thomas Seabolt, who has lived in the area since 1942.
Seabolt said Friday that he had seen some demolition going on but no road work. He was doubtful of GDOT's hope for letting of bids in May.
"I would be pretty well sure they're not going to make it by then," he said, noting virus impacts have interfered with all kinds of plans people make.
In 2018, Seabolt observed that hold-ups on traffic fixes had been part of local history.
"Every five years, they would survey, saying there would be a bypass down through McCaysville. Every five years, DOT would survey it, and that was starting after '54," Seabolt said in 2018. "So it's been talked about a while."
Seabolt has been a firsthand witness most of his life to the traffic problems and the need for a solution for truck traffic.
"I will be glad to see it because the traffic is horrendous on 5 now from Blue Ridge to McCaysville. It's 12 miles of taking the danger into your own hands," he said. "We've needed [a truck route] for years," he said.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation won't be involved until the project is finished and Tennessee starts maintaining the loop in Copperhill, according to agency spokesperson Jennifer Flynn.
"The road will be located in our District 29 area, which includes Polk County," Flynn said. "We have a maintenance office located in Ducktown, so they will be the ones who will look after the Tennessee portion of the road once it is built."
Otherwise, TDOT has no role in the work, she said. Flynn noted, however, TDOT engineers are interested to see their Georgia counterparts' work north of the state line.
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.