COVINGTON — The Georgia Department of Transportation is rushing to issue an encroachment permit to Newton County so work can begin on temporary improvements to Airport Road/Ga. Highway 142 in order to be completed when school starts Aug. 4.
"We're very, very close to issuing it," said Jimmy Smith, district engineer with the DOT.
Both Newton County and DOT officials say they've had several meetings about needed improvements to the road, where the new Flint Hill Elementary School is located.
DOT Deputy Press Secretary Jill Goldberg told the Citizen last week the DOT was not notified of the plans to build a school until March 31. "No one ever contacted us about it," Goldberg said. "The school was about half built when we found out about it on March 31."
But DOT officials now say they've known about plans to build the school since 2009.
"The March date may have come from the traffic study that was received in March. If we gave this date as the first we heard of the school, we are in error and apologize," said DOT spokeswoman Cissy McNure.
The issue first came up during a meeting between representatives with the DOT, Newton County School System and Newton County in April 2009, McNure said.
"This meeting was not specifically about the new school but during the course of the meeting, a new school was mentioned and Ga. DOT informed Newton County officials and NCSS the process of applying for encroachment permits and that Ga. DOT does not participate in the cost of these, it is solely the responsibility of the NCSS and Newton County," McNure said.
The school system sent a letter to the DOT district office in August 2009 stating approval had been given to purchase a new site for the school, which does not constitute application for a permit, according to Smith. The DOT heard nothing else about the project for the next year, until DOT representatives saw the new school under construction. At that point, DOT called a meeting with the county and school system "to find out what their plans were, as we had not yet received a permit (application)," McNure said.
The DOT received the application from Newton County in March of this year. While there is no deadline to apply for the permit, Smith said it's always best to do so as early as possible.
"It's in the best interest of anybody who wants to work on a state route to apply for permits from the DOT the sooner the better," Smith said. "It takes time to get things together in order to issue a permit."
Newton County is responsible for improvements to the roads, but the school system is providing a 15-foot easement for road widening and will consider an additional easement if necessary for access to Ga. Highway 142, BOC Chairman Kathy Morgan said.
Morgan said she has participated in multiple meetings with the school system and DOT regarding the site, and in December the need for a traffic study and anticipated road improvement requirements were discussed between all parties.
"Everyone was properly notified in a timely manner," she said.
"Newton County and the Newton County School System are partners in the future of this county and our citizens. We have a good working relationship and try to work together whenever possible to enhance both our county infrastructure and the school system," she added. "However, as our county grows, so does the school system and county government. Sometimes our calendars, funding and priorities are not synched. That is why communication is so important. When we find these occasions may arise, Dr. (Gary) Mathews and I or our staff will call a meeting for joint discussion to be sure we are all on the same page and working together to meet the needs of all."
The DOT has said it has serious concerns about whether the road can handle the additional traffic that will be generated.
"Airport Road is one way 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," Goldberg said.
County commissioners approved the allocation of up to $25,000 in SPLOST funds for immediate repairs to include widening the aprons on Airport Road to allow buses to enter and exit. The goal is to get that done before the start of school. If that doesn't happen, the DOT won't intervene, Smith said. "We don't have the authority or the capability to do that," he said.
As chairman, Morgan has the authority to close the road if repairs can't be completed satisfactorily, "however, we have been working with the school system to avoid any action of that type. We have worked together on this project and it is everyone's intent to have the school open on time," she said.
Road improvements will be made in four phases, with phase one likely costing between $12,000 and $15,000, with most of the equipment used and work done in house by county employees, she said.
The second phase will include a full widening and realignment of the Airport Road/ Ga. Highway 142 intersection and will begin later in the year to be completed by early 2012. The third phase will be the widening and rehabilitation of Airport Road, which will require the road be closed and begin during summer break 2012. The final phase will be improvements and addition of turn lanes to Airport Road and Ga. Highway 81, to be completed in 2014 or 2015. All improvements will be funded through SPLOST 2011.
Staff Correspondent Aimee Jones contributed to this story.