I've had several questions and comments regarding my earlier post on the legislative meeting and transportation needs in the region in particular. The big point is this: Northeast Georgia has major transportation needs, and we can't say that transportation is an "Atlanta problem" and ignore it during the session. Here is my "top 7 list" of transportation ideas that would help Oconee County, Watkinsville, and in some cases the greater region.
1) Upgrade University Parkway (316) to limited access. Without this investment -- sooner rather than later -- an upgrade could become cost prohibitive as land costs increase. Why is this important? Easy, consistent access to Metro Atlanta and Gwinnett is increasingly important to many businesses in our region, especially if we want to recruit businesses who rely on the Atlanta airport or biotech companies that will work closely with researchers at Emory and Georgia Tech. Also, without the upgrade, we run the risk of the highway becoming another version of Highway 78 -- featuring backups at each light and an ugly Snellville-style streetscape that ruins the entry into Athens. If we don't get this road fixed, we all may be looking back wishing we had taken the "toll road" deal years ago rather than sitting in traffic today.
2) Get the train on track. I have long said that Athens to Atlanta is the place to start with commuter rail in Georgia. You have strong two-way traffic at all times of day. Destinations at both ends of the track, and strong stops in between who go to job centers in Atlanta, Gwinnett and Athens. Special events that can support weekend (and weekday) travel. If the Lovejoy line is put in place (the bird in hand approach given the federal funds allotted), I have no doubt it will fail, and probably put the nail in the coffin of commuter rail in Georgia. Commuter rail in this corridor could also partially mitigate the need for an upgraded 316, although both still need to be done.
3) Improve the Epps Bridge "Village" area. Some plans are underway, but this area is crying out for stronger streetscapes, an integrated street grid, and stronger urban planning guidelines. Plans to bridge the loop at Jennings Mill and perhaps from Daniell's Bridge Road to behind Home Depot are important, but to ensure the health of this commercial node long-term we need to bury utility lines, dress up the streetscape, put strong urban planning guidelines in place that ensure quality buildings and signage, and brand the area as a destination. Without strong planning and focus, this area will go through the boom-bust cycle common in many strip retail centers, and we will be looking at empty or recycled storefronts by 2015 as stores leave for the new shopping center down the street. Fiscally, if we can increase the taxes generated from this area rather than spreading development up and down University Parkway, everyone is a winner. Oconee and Clarke also need to consider some joint planning on this area as it spills back across county lines and other development occurs.
4) Continue to invest in our town centers. Downtown Watkinsville, Bogart, Bishop and other small regional communites are logical places to focus transportation dollars and denser housing and structures. These communities -- if they plan and execute correctly -- could become models, and if local counties will cooperate, could become receiving zones for TDRs and/or density bonuses that will help preserve rural land. For this model to work, these communities will need more than wide roads -- they will need sidewalks, bikelanes, and other infrastructure. Watkinsville's recent funding for streetscape is a great example of this kind of investment.
5) Get the train on track part II: The rail line from downtown Athens to Watkinsville is underutilized and could be an incredible resource on many levels. On campus and in Athens, it could be double tracked and serve as an incredible people mover (much of campus is an easy walk from the rail line as it runs along East Campus Road and Milledge) from the Classic Center to Whitehall Forest. Further south, one could add a hike-bike rail trail next to it and you could have an easy bike route or incredible recreational amenity for commuters and others and still allow rail traffic adjacent. Eventually (I know, it is hard to believe now, but look 20 years ahead) commuter rail between Watkinsville and Athens could preclude the need to widen roads like Simonton Bridge, Milledge, etc. which are unique gateways to Watkinsville and Oconee County as they currently sit. There has been considerable excitement about this concept in the past, but one roadblock or another has always emerged. Real estate and rail companies are becoming more sophisticated (see here and here for examples) about the value of rail easements -- we need to secure this corridor (and lease it back to the rail company short term, if need be) sooner rather than later.
6) Get better air service. I was truly excited about the possibility of a regional airport in Barrow County. Unfortunately, it looks like it has been shot down by local opposition and a lack of vision in Atlanta. But the bottom line is that if we want to recruit big business out here, we have to have respectable air service. Right now, you can't get here without a private jet, and even some of them can't land in Athens. A regional passenger airport in Barrow could handle the North Metro market, and serve as a catalyst for accomplishing items 1 and 2 by bringing more federal dollars to this region.
7) Get unified. Our legislators at the state and federal level need to encourage our local leaders to come up with some priorities and go to work for them. I have no doubt Sen. Cowsert, Rep. Smith and U.S. Rep. Broun could deliver some goods, or at least get things started for the region. But without a concerted, focused push from business and government leaders in Barrow, Clarke, and Oconee (as well as the Univeristy), we can't expect our elected leaders to make transportation a priority.