The Bryan County Board of Commissioners Monday morning unanimously approved a resolution saying the county will pay 50 percent of the funding gap for the new interchange on I-95 at Belfast Keller Road.
The other 50 percent will come from the city of Richmond Hill.
“It was scary last year when we thought this project was dead in the water, but it’s moving ahead,” said Commissioner Steve Myers. “This is very important to the life blood of our community and will help with future growth and development, especially commercial development.”
The interchange will give access to the Belfast Commerce Park, run by the Development Authority of Bryan County, which is located on Belfast Keller Road near the highway. Myers said that more commercial development will ease the tax burden on residents.
Steve Croy, a board member with the authority, attended the meeting to show support, as did Richmond Hill Mayor Harold Fowler, Richmond Hill Councilman John Fesperman and City Manager Chris Lovell. Karen Krupp, vice chair of the Bryan County Board of Education, also was in attendance.
“I want to thank the city for making sure this is a joint effort,” Myers said.
Fowler told the commissioners that the city is “on board” with paying its half of the funding gap.
County Administrator Ben Taylor said the funding gap is estimated to be between $2.5 million and $4.2 million, meaning the city and county would each pay between $1.25 million and $2.1 million.
The county called the special meeting Monday morning specifically to pass the resolution.
The project is estimated to cost between $16.6 million and $18.26 million total. The Georgia Department of Transportation is expected to seek bids for the work this fall.
“The check has to be written to GDOT before the project starts,” Taylor said. “This resolution will help them feel comfortable that we’re ready to pay our share.”
The interchange took another step forward last week when Gov. Nathan Deal announced the county would receive a $1.5 million grant for the project.
The money is part of $23.6 million in grants and loans from the Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank. Bryan County received the maximum amount allowable under the program.
“This is as close as we’ve ever been to getting this project done,” said County Commissioners Chairman Carter Infinger.
The new interchange has been discussed going as far back as 2008. The county recently agreed to an extension with Terra Pointe, the real estate arm of Rayonier, to secure land needed for the project.
“We moved here 20 years ago and people were talking about it then,” Infinger added. “We’ve been having monthly meetings with GDOT for the past year just to make sure everything is still on track,” he said.
The interchange and a new overpass would take about two years total from start to finish.
While the new interchange is expected to alleviate traffic congestion on Highway 144 and other roads such as Timber Trail and Harris Trail, it also could bring with it even more growth. The county’s population is currently at about 40,000 and is expected to hit 60,000 by 2030.
More than 5,000 residential units have been approved along the Belfast Keller Road and Belfast River Road corridor in recent years.
A recent transportation study showed that traffic on Belfast Keller Road is projected to grow from a current 5,000 vehicles per day to 59,000 per day in 2030 if the new interchange is built. Harris Trail will jump from 3,500 vehicles per day to 19,000. Highway 144 is expected to see an increase from the current 26,000 vpd to 51,000.
Commissioner Rick Gardner, however, pointed out that the new interchange will help the county with evacuations.
“Hurricane Matthew really brought that home to us,” he said. “This will give people another route to use.”
County officials also say GDOT remains on track to seek bids on widening Highway 144 in March of 2018.