State Representatives Jeff Jones (R-Brunswick), Don Hogan (R-Darien), Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine), and Emmitt Nolen from Congressman Buddy Carter’s Office, met with Georgia Department Transportation (GDOT) Regional Board member Ann Purcell and engineers on Saturday, Feb. 10th.
Representatives also received official communication from the head of GDOT, Russell McMurry, about their request to pause the tree removal project along I-95.
GDOT’s Response –
According to the letter sent from McMurry to Representatives Don Hogan, Jeff Jones, William Ligon, and Jason Spencer, GDOT continued to consistently cite the two major reasons for the vegetation removal: the problematic reentry efforts due to back-to-back-hurricanes and the increased fatalities involving fixed objects.
“This situation severely hindered the reentry to the coastal region for assisting the rescue and recovery. GDOT worked to get the roads passable and utilized contractors to remove and dispose of the debris. These emergency contracts totaled over $6 million just to clean up and remove the downed trees,” cited McMurry.
GDOT stated that the removal of the vegetation statewide, mainly along I-95 and I-16, are “an ongoing two-year statewide effort” and many of the areas are “not in the final condition.”
“We will aggressively pursue clean up, grassing, and beautification in the designated areas in order to provide the aesthetically appealing roadside that will be the welcome mat for Georgia travelers,” states McMurry.
Meanwhile, much of the area in Camden remains in the process of phase one of vegetative removal. This ongoing process creates concerns among the residents creating an unsightly image on the area’s appeal to traveling motorists. GDOT’s letter states that they will place in soil-stabilizer pollinator gardens with seasonal plants while offering habitats for birds, bees, and other insects.
GDOT has no plans to pause the project due to being legally obligated to the contractors, but GDOT is going to reevaluate the further removal of vegetation, but for Camden County’s trees, GDOT’s actions are irreversible.
“GDOT has reevaluated the limits of removal and seeks to strike a balance of the intended safety and operational benefits while balancing the aesthetic appeal,” states the letter.
GDOT’s District Engineer has requested that the contractor now mow vegetation that is less than 200 feet from the edge of the road line. Live oaks will be looked at carefully to keep them preserved.
GDOT Communication –
AllOnGeorgia spoke with GDOT’s communications spokesperson, Scott Higley, in the Atlanta office. Higley said the communications about the vegetation removal were a “well-orchestrated campaign to inform the public” with press releases and social media.
According to information provided by GDOT to the local representatives, press releases were sent out in November of 2017 along with various social media postings from GDOT’s Southeast Georgia Facebook page. Verification of these communications shows that one press release and one social media posting refer to the project as a “safety enhancement project” requiring ramp closures, not vast amounts of vegetation removal.
Within the press release, GDOT cites the frequently quoted statistic that “51 percent of fatalities in Georgia result from single vehicle crashes – one vehicle hitting a fixed object like a tree or roadway structure” retrieved from traffic fatality data from www.dot.ga.gov/DAAA.
The Nov. 2017 press release states the following concerning the safety project and vegetation removal:
“As we strive to improve safety along the I-95 corridor, it is important that we expand the recovery zone for vehicles that may leave the roadway so that the likelihood of an errant vehicle striking a fixed object is greatly reduced,” stated Georgia DOT District Engineer Bradford Saxon. Also as evidenced following Hurricane Matthew, fallen trees and debris hindered re-entry efforts along interstate corridors to the evacuated areas on the coast. Effective vegetation management will help improve the re-entry time of emergency and essential personnel following a major weather event,” Saxon noted.
The press release does not give specifics on “effective vegetation management,” and the letter from GDOT Commissioner McMurry states otherwise.
Rep. Spencer stated in his discussion with GDOT that “GDOT agreed that they could have done a better job of communicating this level of clearing.”
McMurry continues to maintain in his letter to local representatives that GDOT’s communications were sufficient.
“We regret that you have had constituent concerns despite our proactive efforts in communications with officials, the media, and the public. The Department has regularly issues press releases and has offered and provided interviews with a spokesperson to area newspapers, radio, and TV stations.”
Those communications were sent to Jacksonville media and not local media within Camden County. Many city, county, and locally elected officials contend little to no communication was received from GDOT about the specifics of the “effective vegetation management.”
Rep. Jason Spencer urged GDOT to recommit, focus, and prioritize Exit 1 as a top state line interstate project due to current efforts at revitalizing Exit 1 and GDOT’s undetailed communication actions.
“I was adamant that they make Exit 1 a priority for revision and beautification now that they have cleared all the trees. I will continue to advocate for a total revision of the welcome center and the beautification of the exit. GDOT tells me they will be bringing some renditions forward of beautification efforts for Exit 1. However, the renditions are not complete,” said Spencer.
Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine) states that he has “advised GDOT that in the future on major projects like this, to communicate with the legislative delegation on exactly what is being done because when the trees started coming down, we had no way to respond as to why the current level of clearing was justified. GDOT agreed that they could have done a better job of communicating this level of clearing. Therefore, they are making adjustments in the current clearing/cleanup process due to the level of concerns that have been raised.”
Cost of project/Potential revenue –
AllOnGeorgia also received an open records request from GDOT, which has been confirmed by the letter sent from Commissioner McMurry, about the total cost of the project along I-95 in the six coastal counties.
According to the request, the contractors are being paid over $2.7 million for the removal of the vegetation along I-95. Most of the cost associated with the I-95 vegetation removal is in Camden County totaling just over $2.0 million. Five Guy Farms, LLC is expected to receive close to $1.5 million for the removal of the vegetation in Camden alone. Five Guys Farms is located in Tattnall County, GA and the other contractors’ offices are located in Alabama, Jacksonville, FL., Maryland, and Lawrenceville, Georgia.
The entire contracts for I-16 and I-95 total over $4.6 million for the vegetation removal. For contracts to be approved, GDOT Board members vote to approve the contract after the contractors have gone through a competitive bid process under state law. As part of the process for the eligible contractor’s biding requirement, they are required to evaluate the value of the timber removed from the area.
The contractor then uses that value and reduces the bid that they would present to GDOT to secure the clearing contract. Once GDOT’s Board grants the contract, the timber becomes the property of the contractor to harvest and sell it to a potential depositor. The contractor is allowed to sell the timber to offset the cost of the bid to taxpayers or grind the timber, depending on its quality. GDOT rules require contractors not to burn the timber. The selected contractors were required to pay $600,000 to GDOT for the value of the timber.
According to Rep. Spencer, the $600,000 payment went to the Georgia Forestry Commission based on his discussions with GDOT on Saturday. The amount of revenue from the timber removed from Camden County is unknown. The contractors are not required to report that value nor the value of the timber’s weight. The contractors are only required to submit their procedures for clearing and clean up of the project. The local representatives have asked GDOT to provide a timeline of the beautification process and cost.
The sound of interstate traffic for residents along I-95 has also been a concern. According to GDOT’s letter, constructing noise walls would require a detailed study and Commissioner McMurry’s letters to local representatives says, “I trust that you understand that GDOT could not afford the installation of noise walls at the locations of post interstate development. With leaving a vegetated buffer, we feel this was helpful.”
Sound barriers must receive further approval with the federal government.