When news broke that Columbia County officials had green lighted an incentive package totaling $700,000 for a massive new retail development at the already massively congested I-20 exit in Grovetown, you couldn’t help but hear the massive groan of frustration from those who regularly drive in that area.
Make no mistake, all but a stubborn few of the county’s most ardent conservatives continue to worship at the altar of growth, but putting such a development there? And giving away almost three quarters of a million dollars to let it happen? There?
It’s almost like the commission decided they needed to spend all the money they saved not paying incentives to Gander Mountain by throwing it at the one place in the county that ought to be forced to stand on its own instead of being pumped full of artificial stimulation.
The whole area is already a commuter’s nightmare, with evening traffic backed up well into the shoulder of westbound I-20. And that’s before the apartments across from Walmart fill up and before the Family Y eventually expands into its own building and before the very real possibility of a hospital plopping down just up the street.
Sure — why not add a 140,000-square-foot hybrid grocery store, said to be the largest of its kind east of the Mississippi?
The line of people thinking this is another example of the kind of epically unplanned growth we have to thank for Bobby Jones and Washington Road forms to the left.
After all, how long did commuters wait for the traffic light at the corner of Lewiston Road and William Few? Now they’re saying that intersection isn’t even going to be there anymore, moving instead further up Lewiston Road to distance it from I-20. Another hard-fought victory squandered by unfocused growth, right?
But before joining that line, take a moment and look a little deeper.
Obviously, there are several schools of thought regarding the use of incentive money, but in this case the road money isn’t simply being handed over to the developer at the front end, it’s being paid as a reimbursement at the completion of the project, offsetting the cost of moving the William Few intersection up Lewiston Road, installing a traffic light at the new intersection and adding turn lanes on William Few.
According to Engineering Services Director Matt Schlachter, the developer is on the hook for every bit of the construction, and the incentive money will fall short of covering the entire cost, meaning the developer is going to have some skin in the game, too.
And for those ready to relish the irony of losing the traffic light at the existing William Few so soon after it went online, Schlachter says it’s going to stay in service as part of the main entrance to the development.
Part of the Transportation Improvement Act, the entire road project runs down Lewiston Road from Columbia Road to just over the I-20 bridge. The county has already submitted its application to take over the project from the DOT, which would guarantee the whole thing will move forward following a much more aggressive timetable.
Construction funds will be available in 2017, and in the world of road construction projects, going from design to construction in three years is a pretty impressive feat.
The most interesting idea is what the county is looking to do with the bridge over I-20. It’s a complicated but pretty eye-opening traffic concept called diverging diamond — Google it or watch a YouTube video here (youtube.com/watch?v=HD-0QnUlLOQ); this is a case of a picture really being worth a thousand words. Traffic swaps lanes before crossing the existing bridge, allowing traffic to flow a lot more efficiently, especially those left turns onto I-20 going east, which drivers will be able to do unimpeded.
For a county so resistant to the rather mundane traffic circle at Pumpkin Center, this could prove a tough sell, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and if all that money’s going to be spent anyway, it might as well be spent on something that works. And if the county can have improved mobility along with more growth — if it can have its cake and eat it, too — drivers might just be up for something like a diverging diamond, even if they can’t describe it.