A roundabout at the intersection of West Broad Street and Hancock Avenue is moving forward after Athens-Clarke County commissioners signaled they’ll all support it.
Transportation officials said the roundabout will improve traffic flow and safety for drivers and pedestrians alike. The current intersection requires drivers to make a long left-hand turn from Broad onto Hancock, and merge into high-speed traffic when heading west from Hancock onto Broad. It also has no crosswalks.
“If you’ve gone out there and tried to cross the road, you are well aware of the problems out there,” consultant Eric Hammerland said at a Nov. 9 work session. “There is just an expanse of pavement and concrete. The intersection angles are pretty dangerous.”
Since Broad Street is a state highway, the Georgia Department of Transportation will pick up almost half the $6 million tab for the project, which is scheduled for construction in 2025. The local portion could come from funding for the West Broad neighborhood in the current round of TSPLOST or a potential new pot of funding in the TSPLOST set for a May vote.
In 2019, when commissioners first discussed the project, they had concerns that The Plaza could be closed off from Broad Street. The latest design does not make The Plaza a dead end. The project will require demolishing a plumbing business and cutting down some trees at Broadacres Homes, but it protects Brooklyn Creek, according to Hammerland.
Roundabouts have met with resistance from drivers that are unfamiliar with them, but Athens now has two roundabouts at Tallassee and Whitehead roads and Milledge Avenue and Whitehall Road that seem to work well. The Broad Street roundabout would be similar but larger, with two lanes of traffic instead of one.
“It’s going to be a big change because it’s a roundabout right in the center of town here,” Commissioner Carol Myers said, but it will reduce travel times by half during the morning and afternoon rush hours. Myers said she’s also excited about the opportunity for public art in the center.
At their Nov. 16 agenda-setting meeting, commissioners placed the roundabout on the Dec. 7 consent agenda, meaning it is likely to pass unanimously with no discussion.
In a called voting meeting before the agenda-setting meeting, the commission voted 8–1 to postpone awarding a contract to operate a homeless camp on city property until Dec. 7. Commissioner Ovita Thornton voted no, and Commissioner Russell Edwards did not vote because he was serving as mayor pro tem while Mayor Kelly Girtz was out of town. “I’m getting different versions of what’s going on,” Thornton said in explaining her vote.
The commission is expected to award the contract to the sole applicant, Athens Alliance Coalition, a nonprofit run by Charles Hardy that offers mentoring and counseling services. According to Manager Blaine Williams, some details like providing showers and laundry still need to be worked out, and officials are moving forward cautiously because the federal CARES Act funding that ACC is using to pay for the site comes with strings attached.
Several commissioners proposed a campsite on county property after learning last summer that railroad company CSX was planning to remove homeless campers from property it owns near North Avenue and the greenway. ACC has been preparing a site at an abandoned school off Barber Street, and CSX has been working with the county to put off the removal until it’s ready to open, according to Williams and Commissioner Jesse Houle.
Likewise, the commission voted 8–1 to delay a vote until Dec. 7 on a contract with a newly formed nonprofit, First Athenian Development Corp., to run an eviction prevention program. Based on Project RESET in Gwinnett County, the contractor will work with tenants, landlords and Magistrate Court to stop evictions by paying a portion of back rent.
“We’ve seen things in draft form that haven’t been presented to the public because they’re not yet finalized, but they will be soon,” Houle said.
Commissioners approved FADC earlier this month despite the nonprofit’s lack of experience because it was the sole applicant for the contract. But they also voted to instruct Williams to renegotiate the $3.8 million in funding the group requested and bring back a lower number.
“It’s really important for us to do the due diligence and make sure we have the contract and the accountability built in, because we’re talking about important issues, important problems, but we’re also talking about large amounts of money,” Myers said.
Thornton cited “miscommunication” and “misinformation” for her no vote. “I’m not going to vote for something that looks like it’s being hindered deliberately,” she said.
Williams said FADC agreed that a hold is appropriate. Officials are still working through federal rules regarding disbursing the CARES Act funds.
The commission also voted 6–3 to approve a new commission district map and send it to the state reapportionment office for vetting.
Commissioner Mike Hamby said they should have been working on new commission districts before ACC even received the Census data—something neither he nor any other commissioner had brought up before.
“It seems we have a habit of taking major issues and cramming them into the 11th hour,” Thornton said. “We should have been working on this, talking about this, a long time ago.”
Commissioner Allison Wright objected to splitting Glen Ellen Drive in her district and said the process has been “confusing all the way around.”
The proposed districts were drawn specifically to minimize disruptions, with fewer than 3,000 people changing districts, but some changes were necessary because the districts’ populations must be within 10% of each other. “Inevitably there will be one side of the street in one district and one side of the street in another,” Myers said.
Other commissioners noted that the time crunch was due to pandemic-related delays in producing Census data. “Our staff here moved as fast as they could after receiving the Census data at such a late hour,” Commissioner Tim Denson said.
Commissioner Mariah Parker urged citizens to keep an eye on the process, because ultimately the state legislature is responsible for commission districts. Ten years ago Republicans disregarded the map submitted by the commission and drew their own.
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