Residents prioritize Bethlehem Road interchange but a partisan split has the project stalled

Conceptual layout for Bethlehem Road interchange (IJR photo)

In a recent poll conducted by Moving Henry Forward, local residents ranked the proposed Bethlehem Road interchange as one of their top priorities among planned transportation projects in the county, but a partisan split on the board of commissioners has stalled the project. County commissioners tabled a contract to award preliminary engineering for the interchange in May after democrats on the board expressed opposition and last week’s board meeting included lengthy back and forth discussion about the project.

Last week’s discussion focused on the Atlanta Regional Commission’s ongoing call for local governments to apply for federal transportation dollars. The project solicitation will consider awarding over $450 million in federal dollars over the next six fiscal years, but first, local governments must submit their projects for consideration by Friday, October 11. If Henry County submits an application, the projects will be competitively evaluated against other submissions from across the twenty county metropolitan Atlanta planning area before ARC staff make their funding recommendations in 2020.

Poll respondents score the Bethlehem Road interchange among their top priorities

Moving Henry Forward asked social media followers to identify their top priority and second priority among planned transportation projects in a short survey distributed over the weekend. Out of 220 respondents, the proposed Bethlehem Road interchange was the third-highest scoring top priority (37 respondents) and second most selected project when combining first and second priorities (58).

The most selected project, widening Georgia 155 between I-75 and Bill Gardner Parkway, is not planned for construction until 2030, but the roadway would benefit greatly from completing the Bethlehem Road interchange. It’s been estimated that fifty percent of all truck traffic on highway 155 would divert to the new exit1, freeing capacity on the state highway, if constructed. In total, over sixty percent of respondents identified at least one of the three freight cluster area projects2 as their first or second priority.

The final question on the survey asked residents to identify which project gives them the most hope about future traffic relief after its completion. The Bethlehem Road interchange was the most selected response.

Plans for the new interchange have stalled

The idea to build a new interstate exit between McDonough and Locust Grove was first suggested as far back as 2000 with the first funding towards the project included within SPLOST IV in 2013. In December 2018, the Federal Highway Administration approved the interchange justification report (IJR) conditionally supporting the interstate exit’s future construction. The next steps include the project’s inclusion within the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) and completing environmental impact studies.

The Georgia Department of Transportation and Atlanta Regional Commission have recommended that Henry County pursue a scoping study for the interchange within the current project solicitation. Scoping would build upon the work already completed by the interchange justification report to refine the project’s conceptual layout and develop a preliminary project concept report. Scoping would also move the project from the long-range regional transportation plan, where it’s currently budgeted, into the TIP improving its likelihood to receive federal funding towards right of way acquisition and construction.

Democrats on the commission are opposed to the project moving forward over its proximity to three hundred plus acres owned by the Norfolk Southern railroad. It has been suggested that Norfolk Southern may build an intermodal rail yard on the property as part of their long-range plans. Commissioner Bruce Holmes has been especially vocal in his opposition, characterizing a vote for the interchange as a vote for the rail yard.

Republicans on the board dispute the notion that the interchange’s construction is solely to benefit the railroad. District III Commissioner Gary Barham, one of only two commissioners remaining on the board from 2013 when SPLOST IV was passed, stated the intent behind a new exit has always been to provide traffic relief along highway 155. Commissioner Barham stated that in his many conversations about the new exit, the first mention about a possible rail yard occurred this year.

Commissioner Johnny Wilson referenced the state’s plans to build commercial vehicle lanes along I-75 northbound. Those lanes are planned to terminate at state route 155, bringing potentially thousands of additional tractor trailers to the corridor, but state officials have indicated an open willingness to terminate the project at a dedicated tie-in to the Bethlehem Road interchange if Henry County proceeds with plans to build it.

BOC expected to revisit call for projects next week

The Henry County Board of Commissioners are expected to revisit the application for federal transportation funding at next week’s meeting. If a majority of the board can agree to a set of projects for submittal, then county staff will have approximately ten days to complete and submit the application to ARC.

Henry County staff recommended seven projects for submittal to the 2019 solicitation:

Roadway Maintenance Projects

  • Jonesboro Road
    Mt Olive Road to Clayton County
  • Hampton-Locust Grove Road
    SR 20 to SR 155
  • East Atlanta Road
    Old Conyers Road to Rex Rd

New Roadways

  • Rock Quarry Road extension – SR 138 to East Atlanta Road
    PE funding

Road Widening Projects

  • Highway 81 widening (Phase I)
    Postmaster Drive to Bethany Road
    CST funding
  • Rock Quarry Road widening
    Eagles Landing Pkwy to SR 138
    CST funding
  • Highway 81 widening (Phase II)
    Bethany Road to Keys Ferry
    PE funding

Individual commissioners also asked that the additional projects listed below be considered in the application:

Projects applied for and unsuccessful in receiving funds in 2017 Solicitation:

  • East Atlanta Road widening
    Fairview Road to Valley Hill Rd
    PE and ROW funding
  • Patrick Henry Pkwy widening
    Eagles Landing Pkwy to Jodeco
    PE and ROW funding
  • Jodeco Road widening
    Chambers to Hudson Bridge
    PE and ROW funding
  • Bill Gardner Pkwy widening
    I-75 to SR 155
    ROW funding

Roadway Widening Projects

  • Flippen Road widening
    SR 138 to Jonesboro Road

New Roadways

  • Proposed I-75 Interchange at Bethlehem Road / exit 214
    Scoping funding

Important Terms: PE – Preliminary Engineering, ROW – Right of Way Acquisition, and CST – Construction

The online poll was distributed via the Moving Henry Forward Facebook page collecting two hundred twenty (220) responses between Thursday, September 19, and Sunday, September 22. Projects included within the poll were major projects actively programmed by either Georgia DOT or Henry County.

1. Source: Interchange Feasibility Study, September 2015

2. Freight cluster area projects included widening Georgia 155 between I-75 and State Route 42 (North Segment), widening Georgia 155 between I-75 and Bill Gardner Parkway (South Segment), and the proposed Bethlehem Road interchange.

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