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County, DOT rush to improve Airport Road before school starts

Staff photo: Erin Evans. Jeff Bunch with Ricks Contracting aerates what will hopefully soon be the lawn outside Flint Hill Elementary School on Airport Road Wednesday afternoon. Officials are scurrying to finish the project before school starts in early August, including road improvements to facilitate increased traffic and big school buses.

Staff photo: Erin Evans. Jeff Bunch with Ricks Contracting aerates what will hopefully soon be the lawn outside Flint Hill Elementary School on Airport Road Wednesday afternoon. Officials are scurrying to finish the project before school starts in early August, including road improvements to facilitate increased traffic and big school buses.

COVINGTON -- Newton County has less than a month to make temporary improvements to Airport Road before the new Flint Hill Elementary School opens its doors to students on Aug. 4.

The Newton County Board of Commissioners unanimously agreed Tuesday to allocate $25,000 from the 2011 SPLOST, which began July 1, for immediate upgrades to Airport Road.

Tom Garrett with Newton County Engineering Services told commissioners that the Georgia Department of Transportation is concerned that in its current condition, Airport Road cannot accommodate the traffic that will come as a result of the new elementary school located near the intersection of Airport Road and Ga. Highway 142.

"The school is projected to have about 1,500 students and GDOT has concerns of the location of the school and the impact it will have on the state road," Garrett said.

He presented an improvement plan that would take place in four phases, with the first phase to begin immediately and serve as a temporary solution. Primarily, this includes widening the aprons on Airport Road to allow busses to enter and exit.

"We're going to try to get this done before school starts, which is this month now," Garrett said.

He said the time frame is tight but he believes it can be done.

The second phase will include a full widening and realignment of the Airport Road/Ga. 142 intersection. Garrett said he expects that work to begin later in the year and to be completed by early 2012.

"GDOT has requested that a sheriff's deputy be present until the permanent upgrades are completed next year," Garrett said.

Widening and rehabilitating Airport Road will be the third phase, and that cannot begin until the 2012 summer break since it will require closing the road, he said.

Finally, improvements and the addition of turn lanes at the intersection of Airport Road and Ga. Highway 81 near Oxford will be completed, likely in 2014 or 2015.

All these projects are to be funded with the 2011 SPLOST, Garrett said.

Approximately $3.5 million in 2011 SPLOST revenue is allocated for road improvements as a result of the Newton County Board of Education's decision to build new schools. The county is responsible for road improvements pertaining to new schools. Dennis Carpenter, deputy superintendent for operations with Newton County School System, said NCSS is working with the county and will consider granting additional easements as necessary to complete the needed improvements.

Jill Goldberg, deputy press secretary with GDOT, said Wednesday the location of the new school raises serious concerns.

"Airport Road is one lane in each direction and there is no turn lane. The lane width is also inadequate to handle school buses -- those are very narrow lanes there," she said.

Goldberg said Garrett submitted to GDOT on Tuesday the plans for the temporary improvements.

"We are in the process of reviewing those and rushing them through and we hope to be back with him (Wednesday) with a few minor revisions," she said. "We're doing everything we can to work with them to accommodate them."

Goldberg said GDOT was not aware of the problem the new school would cause until just a few months ago. She said any time a new school is built, GDOT must be contacted so engineers can determine what, if any, adjustments need to be made to the roads, intersections or sidewalks as a result of a new school.

"No one ever contacted us about it," Goldberg said. "The school was about half built when we found out about it on March 31."

At that time, GDOT asked the county to conduct an impact study on Ga. Highway 142 and Airport Road. It was then that they determined Airport Road was inadequate to handle the type and amount of traffic that would result from the school, she said.

Alan Krieger, facilities program manager with the Georgia Department of Education, said local school systems planning to build new schools must notify GDOT as part of the site approval process. According to the site approval package for Flint Hill Elementary School, a letter was sent by Ed Wood with Newton County School System in August 2009 to Bryan Gibbs at the Madison Area Office of GDOT advising that the Newton County Board of Education planned to open an elementary school and a middle school near Airport Road and Ga. 142 in July 2011.

In other news, Newton County Commissioners agreed on Tuesday to accept the utility costs and maintenance for landscaped medians for a roundabout planned by the GDOT at the intersection of Ga. 142 and U.S. Highway 278.

Goldberg said on Wednesday the roundabout is a part of a larger project that includes widening Ga. 142 to a four-lane divided highway.

She said the project is in GDOT's long-range plans and is still in the concept revision and early design phase, but having the county's agreement to accept responsibility for any lighting and maintenance was critical to move the project forward.