Risky Road: Why is there a delay in fixing Highway 80 to Tybee? - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Risky Road: Why is there a delay in fixing Highway 80 to Tybee?

(Source: WTOC viewer) (Source: WTOC viewer)

It’s a story that most of you have heard before. The insufficient bridges on U.S. Highway 80 – going out to Tybee Island – desperately need to be replaced because they can no longer accommodate all the tourism traffic.

The bridges are constantly shut down for wrecks and during severe weather events. But the story that has yet to be told is why are those bridges slated to be rebuilt in 2026 when the safety threat is now?

In a WTOC investigation, it was discovered that the U.S. Highway 80 Bridge Replacement Project is perhaps among many projects that have fallen victim to flawed practices and protocols within the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Tybee Island welcomes more than one million visitors a year, filing in one-by-one along Hwy 80. It’s the only way on and off the island and during the busy season. The very narrow Bull River and Lazaretto Creek bridges on this five-mile stretch are a recipe for disaster.

In 2012, GDOT acknowledged the bridges needed to be replaced because both have narrow shoulders and no emergency lanes. The Lazaretto also has structural issues. It scored a 41 out of 100 on a department examination. The Bull River scored a 61.

Anything below a 50 can be prioritized on GDOT’s list to be replaced sooner rather than later.

But instead, GDOT put the $105 million project on its “Long-Range” list, which means construction would not start until at least 2026. Fourteen years after its priority listing.

Since 2012, there have been more than 50 wrecks on just the two bridges - 87 percent of those occurred on either a Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

Those wrecks usually shut down the bridges and highway because there are no emergency lanes, which means police and EMS can’t respond to other emergencies on the island. 

On July 22, 2017, Tybee Island visitor Karen Parker became one of those indirect victims when she started having a seizure on the beach.

“They kept calling 911. They said there was a bad wreck on the road and the road was blocked,” Parker said.

[You can view the full interview with Karen Parker below.]

She needed an ambulance but her only option was to be airlifted. Parker considers herself lucky after spending time in intensive care and making a full recovery.

“That could have been a small child. It could have been so much worse,” she said. 

Highway 80 is a federal highway and is only eligible for federal funding, which means there is no say at the local level. Once Georgia receives its federal share, it’s all up to GDOT to decide which federal projects can wait and which ones are funded next. 

Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman has been pushing GDOT to expedite this project for years.

“It’s frustrating because what we were told just a few years ago was that the construction would start 2018, 2019 or 2020,” Buelterman said.

GDOT decides on a timeline after they score and selects projects using performance-based criteria, overall goals and stakeholder feedback. But, in Georgia, that information is not readily available to the public unlike DOT’s in states. North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia publicly list project scores and explain why some projects rank higher than others.

WTOC filed an open records request to find out how the Highway 80 Bridge Replacement Project scored and where it ranks on GDOT’s list. That request is still outstanding.

[You can view the full interview with Mayor Buelterman below.]

During the investigation, we came across an audit conducted by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts. It claims there’s a lack of transparency within the GDOT Planning Division, so we went to Atlanta to talk to GDOT officials at their headquarters.

We attended one of the state transportation board meetings, hoping to speak with the planning director because the audit calls out the planning division saying in part, “projects go through an informal review process… problems exist with documentation and transparency… (The Planning division) lacks initial selection criteria… (It) lacks detailed policies and procedures… and decisions are not well documented.”

The planning director was unavailable after the meeting so we went to the GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry. 

“I certainly understand this audit and its findings but I certainly disagree that we do and are very transparent – the most transparent we’ve ever been,” Commissioner McMurry said. 

But we still question their transparency because we don’t have their prioritization list or information about how projects are scored.

However, we did find nearly a dozen federal projects in the Savannah area that are slated to be funded and completed ahead of the bridge replacement project. And they all directly benefit the port of Savannah —  that’s nearly $530 million federal dollars that GDOT will spend over the next five years before ever spending a dime on reconstructing the bridges.   

In 2013, GDOT even delayed a local project to benefit a port-related project. In an internal email, a GDOT official says, “yep (the) locals don’t have the money and this is an extremely high-profile project serving the port (we gotta deliver it).”

In a statement, the planning director said this GDOT employee was, “correct in stating the importance of the delivery of a certain project – including but not limited to the fact that Georgia enjoys the status of being the #1 place for business and freight mobility plays a role in the rating.”

But that contradicts his statement on the bridge project saying, “safety is their number priority.” He also said the project was not being pushed back but rather, “had already been accelerated from “long-range” (no identified date) to 2026”

[You can view the full interview with Commissioner McMurry below.]

But according to our WTOC records and Mayor Buelterman, that’s not true.

“What I have been told is that this project is set to be constructed in 2019 timeframe – give or take a year,”  Buelterman said.

But there’s no way to track and verify original dates on GDOT’s website because according to the audit, “all changes in project status are also not clearly documented. As a result, it’s difficult to determine the extent to which projects have been delayed or advanced or the reasons for changes.”

“This has been the single most frustrating thing that I’ve ever dealt with,” Buelterman said. “It’s because it’s hard to get answers, it’s hard to find out when things are actually going to happen.”

And the frustration for Parker amounts to a $14,000 bill she received for being airlifted, which is more than 14 times the average cost of an ambulance ride. 

“They say I should have taken an ambulance,” Parker said. “I would have if there wouldn’t have been cars in the middle of the road wrecked.”

And the safety threat is overwhelming as long as this remains on GDOT’s long-term list.

“I think it’s very unfortunate. This is about safety. This is about people’s lives,” Buelterman said.

When asked whether GDOT was assuming the liability of lives at risk from the project being on the long-term list, McMurry said safety was still his priority. 

“People have to be accountable and safety is a number one for us. We will continue to make safety improvements,”  McMurry said. “We take that very seriously.” 

While improvements – like restriping the Bull River Bridge -- have been made, the GDOT commissioner and planning director are also yielding to the thousands of drivers on the road saying, “we cannot overstate the importance of driver behavior in reducing these crashes.”

It’s an expensive project, but waiting nearly ten years also comes with a hefty price tag because there will always be someone bearing the cost of these dangerous bridges.  

“The fact they have the means to do it, why is it not being done? If you don’t to put the money into the road, then give me the $14,000 to pay for that bill,” Parker said.

Right now, GDOT is wrapping up the second phase of this five-phase project that includes a tedious environmental permitting process. The preliminary engineering should be completed within the next year. But the right-of-way is not slated until 2024.  And again, construction is slated for 2026.

If you want to see this project moved up, you should contact the GDOT Planning Division: http://www.dot.ga.gov/AboutGeorgia/Offices/Pages/OfficeDivisionDetails.aspx?divisionID=11

Also, if you want to see more overall transparency within GDOT, make sure you reach out to your State Senators and Representatives because it’s up to the Georgia General Assembly to establish a statutory requirement for the Planning Division to disclose more information regarding its process and project selection decisions.

For more information: http://www.legis.ga.gov/en-US/default.aspx

GDOT Planning Director Jay Roberts responded to questions asked by WTOC. You can read the questions and his answers below as well as a statement sent to us on behalf of GDOT: 

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