AUGUSTA, Ga. – Development officials boned up Thursday on some of downtown Augusta’s most anticipated transportation projects.
“There are just a lot of moving parts and pieces right now, and I know the public is really interested, but before you can really start showing pictures you have to understand what the bones are,” said Sue Parr, president and CEO of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. “We’re still in the bones phase.”
At Thursday’s meeting of the Augusta Downtown Development Authority, Parr offered glimpses of some of the $519 million worth of city projects planned through 2032 that will be funded by the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
Nine years ago, voters in a 13-county region including Augusta approved a referendum under the Transportation Investment Act, which allows city and county governments in the region to implement a 1-cent sales tax to pay for specific road projects.
Of Augusta-Richmond County’s 49 TIA projects in the first round of the TSPLOST, 34 are complete and seven are under construction. The rest, Parr said, are on the drawing board.
“The important thing to remember about these eight projects in planning and design is that they will all be under contract by the end of 2022,” Parr said. “That was the commitment that was made to the voters when they passed this referendum back in 2012. All of these projects will be let and hopefully under construction.”
One project is the $10 million renovation of the Fifth Street Bridge spanning the Savannah River. Erected in 1931, the bridge is expected by the end of this year to be closed to motor-vehicle traffic and open for pedestrians and cyclists as a linear park.
“I can’t think of any opportunity where any of us really have to sit out over the river,” Parr said. “It’s going to be very unique.”
An additional $1.75 million, earmarked in Augusta’s recently-passed SPLOST 8, is expected to be used for added amenities to the park.
“iI would not be a good idea if we invested $10 million in this bridge and that’s it. We need to make sure that we keep adding features and adding interest to that bridge to make sure it continues to be a good destination,” Parr said.
On the other end of downtown, the 13th Street Bridge project is expected to be the next to begin construction. While improving the bridge itself is a Georgia Department of Transportation project scheduled for 2024, the city will concentrate improvements down 13th from Reynolds Street to Walton Way.
The Metro Chamber engaged Atlanta architectural firm Cooper Carry in 2015 to conduct focus groups and public meetings to gather suggestions from local residents on what the TSPLOST projects should include. Parr’s presentation Tuesday used artists’ 2015 renderings of projects that she said don’t necessarily reflect a final product.
In the case of 13th Street, one suggestion called for portions of concrete sidewalks to be replaced at intersections with brick and other more attractive surface treatments.
“The idea here is to also use decorative pedestrian crosswalks at Broad and Greene,” Parr said. “A lot of these intersections are going to look like more of what you see in other cities that create more of a beautiful space.”
Perhaps the most talked-about TSPLOST project is the transformation of Broad Street, which hasn’t had a major makeover in nearly 50 years.
“We typically think of roads as just being for cars and just being a road,” Parr said. When famed architect I.M. Pei redesigned Broad Street in 1972, “he designed it in a way that was not just going to be for cars, it was going to be for people. So we wanted to make sure that we took all that into consideration.”
Describing it as “a complicated street,” Parr said the many engineering challenges include reconciling the desire to remove problematic below-grade parking with the desire to maintain ample spaces for downtown residents and merchants.
Plans also call for unifying new downtown improvements with previous ones. A proposed T-shaped area off the Broad Street end of Augusta Common would connect with the pedestrian island occupied now by the street-level statue of entertainment icon James Brown.
Also under discussion is the installation of “traffic-calming features” on portions of Broad that would hinder motorists from traveling at speeds of 25 mph.
“We want people to slow down. We want people to notice our restaurants. We want them to notice our retail,” Parr said.
When Broad Street closes for many of the city’s popular annual festivals, planners are seeking a design that can adapt more smoothly to these events and give visitors less of a feeling that they’re walking down an asphalt road built for cars.
Redesign and engineering plans for Broad Street are expected to be completed by the end of this year, Parr said.
“While we have to manage our expectations of what these projects are going to look like eventually, we do think we have a good working relationship – a team between GDOT, between the city, between organizations like the DDA and the Chamber,” she said. “As a team, we can really make sure we get good results.”