Officials broke ground on the long anticipated I-95 Belfast Keller Interchange during a ceremony Wednesday outside the South Bryan Administrative Complex.
Proponents say the $18.9 million project will drive economic development, ease congestion on Highway 144 and improve public safety by giving commuters another route to the interstate.
Work is expected to be complete in October, 2020. The project has been talked about for decades, officials said during Wednesday’s ceremony.
“I wasn’t sure that I would ever see it happen,” former Bryan County Commission Chairman Jimmy Burnsed said. “We ran into so many obstacles. I knew that it would happen one day, but I didn’t know that I would be around to see it.”
Burnsed, former commission chairman Carlton Gill and current chairman Carter Infinger were among those to speak at the ceremony.
Infinger said he and his wife Karen moved to Buckhead 22 years ago after being told there’d be an interchange at Belfast Keller “in about two years.”
“Twenty years later, it’s finally a reality,” Infinger said.
Richmond Hill Mayor Russ Carpenter and his predecessor, Harold Fowler, also spoke during the ceremony, which was orchestrated by state transportation board Chairwoman Anne Purcell.
Purcell, a former state representative from Effingham County, said she recalled an interchange at Belfast Keller being discussed in 1990 when she was first elected to the general assembly.
“As we went forward, there was always a little obstacle in the road, but we were always determined to make this work,” she said. “It might’ve taken us 30 years, but by God it is going to happen now.”
State Rep. Ron Stephens and state Sen. Ben Watson, M.D., were also on hand at the groundbreaking.
Watson said the interchange, which is on land owned by Rayonier, is “what government is supposed to do.”
the partnership between state and local government and private industry.
“It’s been a public private partnership from the very beginning and is something those involved should be very proud of,” Watson said. “This is what government should be doing for the benefit of our citizens, from a safety standpoint, a traffic standpoint and an economic development standing.”
Burnsed recalled a trip with Stephens to Atlanta to pitch the interchange to Gov. Nathan Deal in 2011, shortly after Deal was elected.
Burnsed said Deal listened for about 10 minutes before agreeing the project should move forward.
“It takes a long time,” Burnsed said. “But that’s what’s so great about the political process. If you stick with it and know you’ve got the right project, it will get done.”
Carpenter said he remembered a legislative breakfast a few years ago when Purcell said that if she and Burnsed weren’t alive when the project got underway they’d have cardboard cutouts made to attend the groundbreaking.
“I’m glad we didn’t need the cardboard cutouts,” he said, while thanking local voters for passing TSPLOST – “the funding mechanism for this project.”
Rayonier has big plans to develop the area around the interchange, according to officials, and Rayonier Vice President Chris Corr was among those to speak Wednesday.
He said he was skeptical when he first heard of the project.
“I’d heard this was going on for years and years, and people were wondering if it would ever happen,” Corr said, noting then he and other Rayonier representatives met with Burnsed, Stephens and Fowler and realized “this is different. This leadership will make this happen and we need to be a part of it. All you’ve heard this morning is about persistence. That’s why our investment is here. That’s why we’re so pleased. This is about the future.”
Infinger asked that residents “have patience” over the next 800 days.
to be a great thing for Bryan County.”
On ramp, but no off
As work on the $18.5 million I-95 Belfast Keller Interchange continues, contractors will build entrance ramps onto I-95. Once those are in place, workers will remove the existing bridge and begin building a replacement – a process that will take about a year, according to Georgia DOT spokeswoman Jill Nagel. Drivers will be able to get onto I-95 from either direction on Belfast Keller, but they won’t be able to cross 95 and will have to take a detour.
Work on the new interchange is expected to be finished in approximately 800 days. Reeve Construction Company is the contractor.
Carpenter’s undelivered speech:
The Richmond Hill mayor went short during the groundbreaking, saying the gnats were hungry for lunch. Here’s his prepared remarks.
What an exciting and historic day to be gathered for this groundbreaking! In knowing the order of speakers, I’m sure the many people who are responsible for this have been acknowledged, and from this new mayor, I also extend much gratitude to all of the City of Richmond Hill’s partners that have made this day a reality.
One person I must include is my predecessor, former Mayor Harold Fowler. It was his vision that led our city, almost 8 years ago, to work toward this interchange, which would still just be pine trees were it not for all of our efforts, from Atlanta to Keller! I would also like to thank the voters of Bryan County for approving the funding mechanism for this project – TSPLOST.
This interchange is a planned project – many years in the making between the City of Richmond Hill, Bryan County, GDOT and Rayonier. We’ve all worked together to accomplish another successful public-private partnership that focused on providing necessary infrastructure before development.
What does this new interchange mean for our City and residents? This interchange improves traffic congestion and vehicle circulation issues to essential services like schools, groceries, and parks. It improves safety for pedestrians and travelers. And it will increase our sales tax base. Our goal at the City of Richmond Hill is to establish a live, work, and play community - and this is an integral step towards making that a reality for our residents.
As many of you know, Henry Ford decided to make our home his winter retreat nearly nine decades ago… but it’s likely even he did not envision Richmond Hill’s growth. I believe this planned interchange that will bring more efficient travel and prosperity to residents of Bryan County would make Henry Ford proud. He took inspiration from the past and saw opportunities for the future. The new interchange is Richmond Hill’s “Model T” – it will alter life patterns, our leisure activities and our landscape.
This is a legacy moment for everyone involved, as it will serve to frame the future of Richmond Hill and our entire region. We look forward to seeing everyone again in 2021 when the new interchange is officially opened.