City DopeNews

Commission Discusses Faster Internet Service, Slowing Down Traffic

Credit: Joshua L. Jones/file

Underserved neighborhoods could see Nissans slow down and Netflix speed up if the Athens-Clarke County Commission moves forward with a proposed municipal broadband service and changes to neighborhood traffic management.

The commission approved changes to the neighborhood traffic management program as recently as 2021, but those changes resulted in a flood of applications that have taxed ACC Transportation and Public Works staff, traffic engineer Tim Griffeth told commissioners at a Feb. 14 work session. And there isn’t enough money to fulfill most of the requests, with $303,000 currently available and another $1 million over five years coming from TSPLOST 2023, the voter-approved sales tax for transportation. That’s enough to cover about three projects this year and another one or two in subsequent years.

“We don’t have nearly enough funding to meet the demand we’re having,” Griffeth said. “It has been shown to be tremendously popular. It is one of the most requested things we have in Athens-Clarke County, as far as our programs go.”

In 2021 and ‘22, TPW staff did traffic studies on 63 residential streets. Twenty-six qualified for traffic-calming measures like speed humps or speed tables, traffic circles and curb extensions, and six requests are awaiting commission approval. Since the program began in 1999, traffic calming devices have been installed on 55 streets.

For a street to be eligible under the current formula, it must see at least 300 vehicles per day, with an 85th percentile speed of 30 miles per hour (meaning 15% of drivers go faster) and approval from 65% of property owners. Changes proposed by Griffeth and Vision Zero coordinator Shirelle Hallum, whose job is to reduce traffic deaths and injuries, would still make speed and traffic volume the key requirements. However, officials would also consider the area’s minority and low-income populations. Projects would be prioritized according to those criteria.

Commissioner Mike Hamby said he also wanted to see cut-through streets, streets with no sidewalks and streets near parks moved to the top of the list. And Commissioner Jesse Houle said the county should take input from renters under consideration, not just homeowners.

Commissioner Ovita Thornton asked why she doesn’t see any traffic calming devices near schools in her district. That’s because the program only applies to residential side streets unless the commission makes an exception, Hallum said; most schools are on busy arterials or medium-sized collectors like Boulevard or Freeman Drive. Mayor Kelly Girtz said he’d like to have a separate, broader discussion about collectors and arterials. The county has narrowed lanes on some collectors like King Avenue to slow down drivers, Hamby said, and should do more of that. He also said he wants to see a budget proposal adding staff to the neighborhood traffic management office, which currently has two employees.

Commissioners also heard an update on a plan to extend broadband internet access to unserved and underserved areas throughout the county. Based on a survey of residents, officials designed a fiber-optic ring around the county. The ring will connect to “huts,” which will connect to “cabinets” that feed fiber optics to individual properties.

Voters approved $6.3 million for broadband as part of SPLOST 2020, of which $3.7 million remains undesignated. The ring alone, however, will cost about $7 million, with the entire project “well north of $100 million,” SPLOST Administrator Derek Doster said. However, the public funding could entice a third party to partner with ACC, and with that private funding ACC could qualify for a federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant, Doster said. That program provides $42.5 billion in grants, with a 25% local match required.

At another work session Feb. 16, Classic Center Executive Director Paul Cramer updated the commission on plans for the new downtown arena. Despite rising construction costs and challenges with bedrock at the site, it remains under the $135 million budget—including $34 million from SPLOST—thanks to a complex and carefully timed funding scheme. Watching Cramer put the deal together “has been something to see,” ACC Manager Blaine Williams said. “And I don’t want to do it again,” Cramer added. Construction is scheduled to be completed in spring of 2024.