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Transportation Vote Focuses on Neighborhoods, Equity

TSPLOST funding will help fill in sidewalk gaps like this one on Lexington Road. Credit: Courtesy of BikeAthens

Sidewalks, bike lanes, storm drainage improvements, paved streets, repaired bridges, electric cars for Athens-Clarke County staff and the continuation of the Oconee Rivers Greenway are just a few of the 34 projects that would be funded by TSPLOST 2023. 

If voters approve extending the 1% sales tax on May 24, it will take effect in January, continuing the work begun by TSPLOST 2018. The new initiative, which stands for Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, is expected to generate $150 million over the next five years. 

In compiling the list of projects, the TSPLOST advisory panel heard from residents across the county, as well as from ACC Transportation and Public Works Department staff members. A number of projects are “neighborhood-driven,” focusing on the underserved Westchester neighborhood, the Stonehenge neighborhood, East Athens and Sycamore Drive. The application process required residents to submit documentation and to create a visual presentation for the panel. Members pared the number of approved projects from 90 to 34.

Janice Custis advocated for infrastructure improvements in the Westchester neighborhood, which is tucked between Tallassee Road and Mitchell Bridge Road. “It desperately needs sidewalks,” she said. “Every morning, there would be groups of kids waiting for school buses, standing in the road about to get hit. I saw a guy in a wheelchair get off a city bus on the side of the road. That isn’t right.” She hopes the $1.9 million budgeted for Westchester will provide sidewalks, safe crossings, lighting and better access to buses so that residents “can get around safely.”

The Stonehenge neighborhood is slated to receive $4.7 million that will improve “safety, accessibility and connectivity along Old Monroe Road” and along neighborhood streets. The money will pay for connecting sidewalks, safe crossings, landscaping, signage, lighting and/or other safety improvements. Mykeisha Ross, currently a candidate for mayor, advocated for Stonehenge to have sidewalks, along with transit service, to help residents get to jobs on time. She said she was once driving in the neighborhood and saw “kids walking in the middle of the street because there are no sidewalks. It’s just common sense that there should be sidewalks so kids can safely get to the recreation center.” 

North Athens should receive $8.2 million for “traffic studies, sidewalks, crosswalks, multi-use trails, traffic signals, pedestrian and street lighting, waste receptacles, transit improvements, greenway trails and connectors, bridge replacements and/or safety improvements.” Many residents believe the improvements are long overdue.

“You can see every day, working people walking along the side of the road, and cars zipping by them at 45, 50 miles an hour,” said Quasion Payne, who has always lived in the North Athens area and who advocated for the projects. “You either need to widen the roads or put in sidewalks. I don’t understand spending millions on enhancing leisure activities when people can’t get to work safely.”

The bridge on North Avenue that crosses the Loop “is a death trap, and someone’s going to be killed there,” Payne said. “It’s very narrow, and the guardrails force you to walk in the road when you cross on it. It’s a constant fight for us to get what is standard in other parts of the county.” 

In East Athens, the list of projects includes a combined $1.7 million to make streets calmer, safer and better. Streetlights are slated for Johnson, Spring, Warren, Peter, Vine and Dublin streets. Speed humps, curb extensions and speed monitoring should slow traffic in East Athens, and Fairview Avenue will be resurfaced. Also on tap are more “sheltered bus stops, connecting sidewalks, landscaping, signage, lighting, other safety improvements and/or other standard transit system improvements.” 

Continued work on the greenway is budgeted at $3.9 million. $7.5 million is included for the Firefly Trail. 

Three heavily traveled corridors—Lexington Road, Atlanta Highway, Prince Avenue and Timothy Road/Mitchell Bridge—will all have major improvements. These include additional sidewalks, multi-use trails, separated bike lanes, landscaped and/or concrete medians, intersection improvements, lighting and/or other safety improvements along the corridor and connecting streets. 

Almost $9 million has been budgeted for Prince Avenue and $9 million for Atlanta Highway, while Lexington Road will receive $8.3 million. Another $543,000 will fund a “sidewalk gap” project to connect short strands of sidewalk on the north side of Lexington Road between the intersections with Cooper Road and Whit Davis Road. Timothy Road/Mitchell Bridge, where sidewalks will continue south, has been budgeted at $6.9 million. Community groups have been debating for years how to improve the look and feel of Prince Avenue, to make it safer and more pedestrian and bike friendly.

Nearly $30 million would be set aside for Athens Transit operations, which would pay to keep buses fare-free for the next five years and increase the frequency of service. 

A program to improve bicycle and pedestrian projects is budgeted at $8 million. According to the ACC website, its goals may include “additional roadway bicycle lanes, separate bicycle lanes, roadway pavement marking, off-road bicycle paths, trails, sidewalk improvements, pedestrian safety devices such as stamped and colorized crosswalks, flashing crosswalks, removing obstructions such as utility poles in sidewalks, refuge islands in intersections, improvements for the visually impaired, improved access to ACC Transit stops, signage, pedestrian countdown timers and/or other safety equipment.”