Houston Road lawsuit in judge's hands
By Christopher Schwarzen
It's now up to a federal judge to decide whether to stop the widening of Houston Road from two to five lanes.
Attorneys for federal, state and local transportation offices closed their case Friday in CAUTION Macon's attempt to stop federal funding for the road project. CAUTION Macon, an organization that has questioned the project's scope, contends an environmental assessment used to approve federal monies was not completed properly.
Attorneys for the road builders limited their case to three witnesses, canceling at least four more to speed up proceedings.
Federal district court Judge Duross Fitzpatrick said Friday evening he will decide the project's fate after a full transcript of testimony has been completed and briefs from both sides are filed. The briefs deadline is Jan. 28. Fitzpatrick did not estimate how long he'd take to reach a decision.
Work on the widening, meanwhile, continues.
"I'm not prepared to issue a ruling this evening," Fitzpatrick said. "This is one I want to get right if I can."
A ruling in favor of CAUTION Macon could suspend federal funding for the project, which could end the five-lane widening. A ruling for the defense will allow construction to continue.
The majority of Friday was spent with attorneys questioning Federal Highway Administration employee Faye Dimassimo, an assistant division administrator in charge of federal road projects in Georgia.
Dimassimo's office was responsible for compiling information used in the environmental assessment. CAUTION Macon believes the study didn't fully address quality of life, air quality, drainage and traffic concerns, and that an environmental assessment should have been completed for the entire Macon-Bibb County Road Improvement Program.
Dimassimo testified Friday that drainage concerns from the road improvement will be corrected with a gutter system. She said Macon is under no federal air-quality restrictions that might restrict the widening project, adding that Atlanta is the only such city in the state.
As for an assessment of the entire program, Dimassimo said Friday it would not be helpful.
"At that point, (local transportation offices) are still dealing with the conceptual level," she said. "Real environmental consequences are difficult to define then."
Dimassimo said if the environmental assessment had shown considerable hazards from the project, then a more complete document called an environmental impact statement would have been completed.
In the Houston Road case, this was not done because the assessment showed no significant impacts on the surrounding community.
CAUTION Macon witnesses suggested Wednesday and Thursday that three lanes would be sufficient. Dimassimo also countered this.
She said a three-lane option was not considered because it would not address a high accident rate and projected traffic in 2025. More than 25,000 cars daily are expected on Houston by then.
"There are always many other alternatives people can look at, but in this case, given the accidents and the projected traffic growth, my own opinion is that (five-lanes) is the best solution in the corridor."
Defense witness James Evans, a traffic consultant who computed the traffic projections, agreed with Dimassimo's testimony. He said more than 70 accidents were reported in 1996, with 30 percent of those being rear-end collisions.
"Three lanes does not solve the rear-end collisions from those making right turns," he said. "You'll still have backed up traffic with three lanes."
Evans said a middle turn lane will be used by traffic from both directions to turn left. The outside lanes can be used for right turns, leaving the middle lanes for free-flowing traffic.
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