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Infrastructure in the fast lane
GDOT's I-16 at Old Cuyler Road interchange project is spurred on by economic growth, investment

During a 2018 groundbreaking, officials noted it took more than 20 years to turn the Belfast Keller interchange on I-95 in Richmond Hill from idea into reality.

Fast forward six years and Georgia Department of Transportation officials expect the new I-16 interchange at Old Cuyler Road in Ellabell to go from the planning stages to “substantial completion” in a quarter of that time.

After planning began in 2022, construction on the $140 million project in Ellabell–some three miles east of the Highway 280 interchange–is expected to begin in 2025 and be largely finished by 2027.

That’s a five-year turnaround, and the single biggest impetus for the sudden fast lane for road projects in Bryan County is Hyundai, which chose the Megasite in Black Creek due to its ability to offer them "speed to market," former Development Authority of Bryan County CEO Anna Chafin said. 

The South Korean automaker’s decision in May 2022 to invest billions in an electric vehicle plant in Black Creek led to both the need and the funding for infrastructure fixes.

What’s more, Hyundai’s investment, which has since ballooned from about $5.5 billion to more than $8.5 billion with the addition of a $2 billion battery plant – in partnership with LG – and a $956 million Hyundai Mobis power plant factory in Richmond Hill --  isn’t taking place in a vacuum.

Officials say additional industries and the proliferation of warehouses in North Bryan, along with the ongoing growth boom at the port in Savannah, is also generating more traffic – particularly that of trucks, which already make up around a quarter of all the traffic in the area surrounding the Megasite, according to GDOT.

Still, Hyundai’s announcement, widely hailed as the single largest economic investment project in state history, provided the spark. Planning followed the carmaker’s announcement almost immediately, according to GDOT, which also credits a process it calls “design build,” in which a single contractor provides both design and construction services.

“This early coordination includes representatives from Hyundai, Georgia Department of Economic Development, local development authorities, engineering consultants, and local governments with multiple meetings occurring every week to ensure the projects are delivered in lock-step,” said Georgia DOT Deputy Chief Engineer Andrew Heath. “GDOT is delivering the committed infrastructure projects associated through a design-build delivery model with an emphasis on both quality and speed as every day counts. In delivering the projects through this model, top priority is placed on all deliverables to drive these efforts forward; which speaks to the criticality of effective coordination and communication across the team.”

While the design build contract for the new interchange hasn't been awarded yet, Marietta-based joint venture Matthews-MClendon JV and Infrastructure Consulting and Engineering PLLC were given the design build contract for a new frontage road to tie into the new interchange and long sought  Highway 280 improvements.

New interchange just one piece of the puzzle

When local officials asked for help getting a new interchange built off I-95 at Belfast Keller in the 1990s,  there were many discussions at the state and federal level, as well as with Rayonier, which owns much of the land in the area. But traction on the project was hard to find; ground wasn’t broken on the Belfast Keller interchange until 2018. It was completed in 2021 at a cost of $19 million.

Similarly, early plans in the late 2000s to improve the I-16 interchange at Highway 280 spent at least a decade languishing before Hyundai’s announcement spurred the investment into area roads. Now, I-16 and 280 improvements are part of an $83 million project to widen Highway 280 that are projected to be finished in 2026.

Another $30 million frontage road along I-16 will connect 280 with the Old Cuyler Road. That road is expected to be mostly complete by the end of 2024.

The need for the new interchange is made evident in traffic projections from GDOT, which estimates by 2027 – the year the Metaplant is projected to be “built out” – the traffic count on Highway 280 near I-16 will average 38,550 vehicles per day, even with the new interchange.

In 2022, 11,200 vehicles per day were counted south of I-16 while 14,700 vehicles per day were counted north of I-16.

Without the Old Cuyler interchange providing another access to I-16 the average number of vehicles per day on Highway 280 are projected to climb to more than 46,000 per day south of I-16 and 43,000 per day north of the interstate in 2027.

Public input

The public still has until March 10 to weigh in on the new interchange, frontage road and through the GDOT’s website.

A Feb. 29 public information open house held by GDOT in Pembroke drew 34 people. Fifty people attended a similar event in January, 2023, and the project website got 1,364 page views. During that comment period 127 comments were received, according to GDOT. Only 14 expressed opposition to the projects.

For more information, read the earlier story from Bryan County News:

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