Work on the proposed interchange at I-95 and Belfast Siding Road could begin as early as the summer of 2017 — or then again, maybe not.
Much depends on whether Congress reauthorizes the Federal Highway Transportation Fund, but for county commission Chairman Jimmy Burnsed, the project has friends in the right places with the Georgia Department of Transportation.
“I think the DOT likes the project because somebody else is paying for the engineering and right of way and all they’ve got to come up with are construction funds,” Burnsed said.
The “somebody else” he is referring to is Rayonier, which owns much of the land around the interchange and is involved in a private-public partnership with Richmond Hill and Bryan County at the Belfast Commerce Centre.
Rayonier is funding the first steps of the interchange project to the tune of about $2.5 million, according to the DOT’s 2014-2017 state transportation improvement list, commonly referred to as a STIP list.
But that still leaves the need for at least $10 million to build the interchange, construction on which is currently set to begin “after 2017,” according to the STIP list.
If things go right, that could happen sooner in 2017 rather than later.
“The state’s fiscal year for 2018 starts July 1, 2017,” Burnsed said. “If funding is available, it seems they could start right after July 1, 2017.”
That’s not certain, but “it does appear there’s a lot of interest at the DOT level to see this project gets done,” Burnsed added.
The holdup is Congress, which is battling over President Obama’s four-year, $302 billion transportation bill. Without an infusion of funds, the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which began in 1956, could run out of money by August, according to various internet reports.
That will put a lot of projects in jeopardy, including the interchange at Belfast Siding.
“Until the (transportation bill) get’s passed, there’s not going to be anything happening,” Richmond Hill Mayor Harold Fowler said.
Fowler and Burnsed are among a number of local, state and federal leaders who have championed the interchange for years and believe it will bring business and industry to South Bryan and Richmond Hill while easing congestion on Highway 144 by giving commuters an alternate way to get on I-95.
Last summer at a Richmond Hill Rotary Club meeting, state Rep. Ron Stephens — lauded by local officials for his role in pushing the interchange — said the project’s impact on Richmond Hill will rival that the airport interchange at I-95 in Pooler had there.
“For those of you that go down to the airport (at I-95 in Pooler), take a look,” he told Rotary Club members. “That was a new interchange not very many years ago and look what’s happened to Pooler, Ga. — the new Pooler, Ga. — it is exploding.”
Richmond Hill could expect similar growth — and Fowler said the new Interchange will make the city the only one in Georgia with three interchanges on I-95.
“The only thing we’re waiting on now is for the federal government to pass the federal highway bill,” Fowler said.