Sitting in traffic on Hardy McManus Road with dozens of cars ahead of her, Lori Andrews has decided to make her daily commute from her Evans home to the medical district in downtown Augusta less aggravating.
With her car window rolled down, a deep voice can be heard asking, “How would you say to a close friend, ‘I would like to go with you?’”
There is a brief pause and then the voice answers, “Me gustaria ir contigo.”
“Yes, I’m trying to brush up on my Spanish,” Andrews said, laughing. “Some of the people who come to our office only speak Spanish and it’s been 10 years since I took it in college, so I decided to start listening to lessons in the car.”
Andrews, 33, said it beats getting aggravated with the congested traffic that she runs into each morning after dropping her kids off at school and heading down Hardy McManus to Furys Ferry Road, then over to River Watch Parkway.
“A few years ago, it would take me about 25 to 30 minutes to get to work,” Andrews said. “Now it takes me about that long just to get onto Furys Ferry Road. It was getting to the point that I was completely stressed out before I even walked into work, so that’s when I decided I needed to leave a lot earlier each morning and find a distraction. Otherwise, I was going to lose my mind.”
Steve Cassell, division director of Engineering Services in Columbia County, said he completely understands residents’ frustrations with traffic delays due to road construction projects and the heavy volume of vehicles on the roadways.
“Our peak times are very peaked.”
“That’s when the frustration sets in and I understand that,” Cassell said. “I get frustrated being stuck in traffic, too, and I know how it works.”
The traffic delays occur because there are a number of road projects going on throughout the county on various main arteries such as River Watch Parkway and Washington Road, along with an increase in the volume of traffic in areas such as North Belair, Furys Ferry, Hardy McManus and Columbia roads.
“It is unfortunate, especially here in the Evans area, that we have so much that is impacting traffic right now,” Cassell said. “We have the River Watch project, which they are trying to complete. We also have the Washington Road project going on now. Those are two main arteries, so we are trying to get better coordination between the two.”
The $35 million extension of River Watch Parkway in Columbia County by the Georgia Department of Transportation began near the beginning of 2014 and was scheduled to be completed this week. However, the project is running behind schedule.
GDOT said the project experienced a number of weather delays due to heavy rains during the first part of the year.
There is also a $29 million road widening project on Washington Road between Gibbs Road and William Few Parkway that is tying up traffic, Cassell said.
The project, which began in September 2014, will eventually provide two travel lanes in each direction, along with a center turn lane, on this 2.9-mile stretch of Washington Road. There will also be bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides of the road.
“In order to reduce some of the impact with the Washington Road project, we have done some changes to the traffic control plan and it has helped the flow there,” Cassell said. “It’s not perfect. I’m not saying it is not congested, but I watch it, I measure it and I’ve seen an improvement. It is flowing a lot better than it was two or three months ago.”
Active management of the traffic signals can make all the difference during peak hours, Cassel said.
“The staff has really picked it up and I think the construction people are appreciating the fact that we need to keep everyone mobile,” Cassell said, adding that the county is working with GDOT to make sure that lane closures are truly necessary throughout the week and not just part of a scheduled plan.
“It all impacts each other because we’ve had a lot of people using Washington Road to avoid Furys Ferry Road. And then we’ve had a lot of people using Columbia Road to avoid Washington Road because it was getting congested. So I am hoping that will start to balance out and sort of stabilize a little bit pretty soon.”
Another major traffic concern in Columbia County is the Grovetown exit off I-20 at the Lewiston Road and William Few Parkway corridor. Construction at that exit frequently causes traffic to back up onto the interstate.
Currently, the GDOT is working on an $8.28 million concrete pavement replacement project along I-20 from mile 194 to mile 172.
Over the past several months, crews have been shutting down the right hand westbound lane around Exit 194 and carry the closure two miles downstream during each phase, the GDOT stated.
The official completion date for the entire project is scheduled for Aug. 31.
“There are some things dealing with maintenance on I-20 by GDOT that is just necessary. I mean, the slabs out there on I-20 were bad. As bad as it is now, it could be worse if they have a failure,” Cassell said. “These projects are very necessary. GDOT wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t need to.”
“They are not sitting there saying, ‘How can we shut down that area?’ That’s not what they do.”
But when traffic backs up on an interstate and some motorists are speeding well above 70 mph, it can be a dangerous combination.
Just last month, 23-year-old Fort Gordon soldier Alexander Earles died in a multiple-car crash near the Grovetown exit on I-20 westbound. Crews had to close I-20 westbound for several hours from the Belair Road exit to Lewiston Road.
According to the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, Earles was behind two other vehicles in the westbound lane on I-20 and was completely stopped due to road construction.
A fast-moving pick-up truck with a trailer slammed into Earles’ stopped vehicle. Earles’ car was crushed to half of its original size and he died at the scene.
Over the next several months, the county will be working with the GDOT to improve access onto the Grovetown exit and reduce the number of vehicles backed up on the interstate, Cassell said.
“There are some issues out there. There is no denying that,” Cassell said. “Because it is such an issue right now, we met with GDOT to come up with an agreement to allow us to do some interim improvements over there and they have been very supportive of it.”
The goal of the short-term improvements is to allow better access onto the exit ramp while construction continues in the area, he said.
“We are actually in the process of getting the approval from GDOT to go ahead and add an extra lane by using the shoulder coming off the ramp as a right turn lane,” Cassell said. “We will also do some minor widening along Lewiston to help lane utilization out there.”
Within the next two years, Cassell said a major $25 million road widening project is also scheduled to begin at the Lewiston Road interchange from I-20 to Columbia Road.
The 2.5-mile project will be funded through the Transportation Investment Act (TIA) of 2010.
“That will be the widening to five lanes and that includes the famous diverging diamond interchange,” Cassell said.
A diverging diamond interchange, also known as a double crossover diamond, is an interchange that crosses traffic to the opposite side of the road across an interchange so vehicles have unimpeded movement onto the freeway ramps, according to the GDOT.
Therefore, left turns, which are a typical challenge with standard four-way interchanges, are eliminated with a diverging diamond interchange.
“By the end of year, hopefully we will be buying right of ways in that area,” Cassell said. “However, that is going to be about a year-and-a-half to a two-year process to get it to where we can start construction within 2019. But I want to get it going as early in 2019 as we can because we are under the statutory deadline to get it under construction by December 2019 to meet the purposes of the TIA program.”
Once completed, Cassell believes this road project will significantly improve the traffic flow at the Grovetown exit.
“A lot of traffic is shifting over there because there is so much going on around the Belair Road and Jimmie Dyess Parkway area,” Cassell said. “So what you are finding in the evenings is a lot of back up on I-20 coming off that interchange. And it has a lot of peak traffic because that is pretty much one of the few arterials in that area that goes to Fort Gordon.”
But 2019 is still a ways off and the public has been discussing Columbia County’s traffic woes around Grovetown for a number of years now.
In fact, not long after taking office in 2015, Commissioner Doug Duncan said he received an earful while campaigning about the traffic delays throughout the county.
He frequently told citizens that he experienced the same frustrations while sitting in traffic in Columbia County.
“I often get hacked off and say, ‘What the heck?’” Duncan told the Metro Spirit in 2015, adding that he travels each weekday from his Martinez home to his Greene Street office in downtown Augusta. “We have to fix the transportation issues as quickly as we can. There’s $200 million that has been allocated to be spent on a plethora of projects. Unfortunately, it just takes a long time to get it done, which is frustrating.”
With so much rapid growth in Columbia County over the past decade, Duncan said it has been virtually impossible for the GDOT and the county to keep up with the area’s transportation needs.
“The county has a progressive plan for all the pinch points from a traffic perspective,” Duncan said. “The tough part is, it just does not happen fast. You have to have the plan designed and go through the right-of-way acquisitions and move the utilities before you even get to move dirt. That can take years.”
But Duncan said the frustrations are very real and are being voiced throughout the county.
“A gentleman got up during a meeting and he was really upset with the Grovetown traffic situation. He was saying, ‘You’ve done nothing,’” Duncan said. “It’s just not a situation whereby we get the funding and we just go start moving dirt. It is a cumbersome system.”
In order to truly understand what the residents of Grovetown were facing each day, Duncan drove out to exit 190 during rush hour.
“I went out to I-20 on a Friday at about 5:30 p.m. and got off on Lewiston Road,” Duncan said, adding that cars were racing by on the interstate as Duncan waited in line, inching his way up the exit ramp.
“I actually took my life in my hands,” Duncan jokingly said, describing the cars flying by him on I-20. “It took me an hour to get from there to Boots, Bridles and Britches (on West Robinson Avenue in Grovetown). All I could think of was, ‘This is a mess.’”
While traffic congestion still remains an issue in Columbia County, Cassell said the county is moving as quickly as possible to help alleviate some of the problems.
“It is definitely a focus here and to have traffic taking away from all the other good things we are doing is not what we want,” Cassell said.
“We do what we can to improve the traffic flow and get rid of the bottlenecks. And people understand once they see the progress. Of course, they get frustrated with road construction at times, but at least we have a solution in the works.”
For instance, the county held public information meetings earlier this year regarding the planned Furys Ferry Road widening project. The 3.8-mile project goes along Furys Ferry Road from Evans to Locks Road to the South Carolina state line.
The plan proposes widening Furys Ferry Road from Evans to Locks Road to Hardy McManus Road to four lanes with a 20-foot raised median. In addition, bike lanes, a multi-use path and a sidewalk would be constructed.
At the intersection of Hardy McManus Road and Furys Ferry Road, the project also proposes installing a partial multi-lane roundabout.
Currently, the average daily traffic (ADT) at Evans to Locks and Furys Ferry roads is more than 20,600 vehicles. At Furys Ferry and just before Hardy McManus Road, the ADT is approximately 15,200 vehicles.
“So I think the long-term impact of the Furys Ferry Road fix will be very good,” Cassell said. “And people are starting to see that. To be honest with you, what has been truly amazing to me with both the Lewiston Road and Furys Ferry Road projects has been the amount of interest by the public in these projects.”
Back when he was the traffic engineer for Augusta-Richmond County, Cassell said he would hold public meetings about road projects and sometimes only three people would attend.
“And two of the people were from the media,” Cassell said, laughing. “But at the public meeting for the Lewiston Road project, we had 250 people. At the Furys Ferry Road meeting, we had 270 people. That was great to see and, for the most part, everyone was really positive. They mainly asked, ‘How quickly you can get it done?’ And another big concern was, ‘Will Washington Road be done before Furys Ferry’s project begins?’ And that answer is, yes. Washington Road will be done.”
While Cassell would love to tell the public that these projects will be completed in no time at all, the truth is that major road construction projects take time and a lot of solid planning in order to be successful.
“If you have a bad design, you are going to pay for it during construction,” Cassell said. “So we want to make sure we have a thorough design that is easy to construct that won’t cause us any headaches down the line.”
For Andrews, who is trying to make the best out of the long traffic lines with her Spanish speaking lessons, she understands that road construction is just part of living in a growing and thriving community.
“Well, I love my house. I love my neighborhood. I love my children’s school. I love this community and I love my job downtown,” she said. “I’m not willing to change any of those things, so I will deal with the traffic.”
While long lines and short tempers can be irritating, Andrews insists stressing yourself out each day on the way to work only makes the wait that much worse.
“Some people listen to music. Some of my friends play games in the car with their kids. I listen to Spanish lessons to make the commute a little more relaxing,” Andrews said, chuckling. “And you never know? By the time all of these traffic projects are finally over, I might be totally fluent in Spanish. We’ll see.”