Frank Biezenbos has driven Highway 144 just about every day for the past 19 years. Thursday, Biezenbos drove the few miles east from his home in Strathy Hall to the County Administrative Complex to attend a public hearing on the proposed widening of 144 and give state engineers his two cents on the project.
In short, he’s for it.
“It’s going to be a good thing. It’s going to save lives,” said Biezenbos, who knows first-hand the dangers the heavily traveled road poses.
He was on his way to work one morning when he was involved in a wreck in front of Strathy Hall. He said his pickup was hit by a drunk driver.
“It totaled my truck, totaled his car,” Biezenbos said as he filled out a DOT comment sheet. “If the road had been four-lanes at that time, it would have averted that accident.”
And Biezenbos, a retired Gulfstream worker, was just one of dozens of South Bryan residents who attended Thursday’s hearing to learn what the proposed widening will mean for them.
Most seemed pleased with what they heard, officials said, about the project to widen 144 from two to four lanes along a five-mile stretch running east from Timber Trial Road to Belfast River Road.
The work is expected to cost around $18 million and take about 30 months to complete once contractors start moving dirt.
While some details seem fuzzy, the DOT says right of way is being authorized this year and will be bought in 2015. And it appears actual work could begin on the project as soon as late 2016, though officials say there could be delays.
But that seemed a minor issue Thursday.
“You’d be surprised what they like about the project,” said DOT District Engineer Karon Ivory. “I haven’t heard much negative about it at all.”
Not that everybody liked what the DOT has planned. Joe and Margaret Lawrence’s home fronts Highway 144 across the street from The Cove condos. Joe Lawrence, who is retired military, said he had three issues.
“No.1, cars end up in my yard periodically when they run off the road. So when the road is closer to the house, I don’t want them coming in through my front porch,” he said.
“Also, my septic tank field is right in front of the house, so that will have to be relocated. And also, how close in are they coming?”
Lawrence said he is worried the plans will bring the road “right through my rose garden, which is 5 feet from the front of my house, and that’s not counting culvert.” He noted an engineer told him plans had changed and there wouldn’t be a bike path.
“I’m not sure why they need a bike path anyway,” he said. “Years ago I said they should three-lane it, make it two lanes out in the morning, two lanes in the evening. That’s what they did on Hilton Head.”
Like Lawrence, Biezenbos had a concern: the reduction of the speed limit to 45 mph from Timber Trail Road to the Highway 144. But that was no big deal, he said.
“I guess we’ll have to live with the speed limit,” he said. “It won’t be too bad.”
Like many, Biezenbos said the project is long overdue. That didn’t surprise county commission Chairman Jimmy Burnsed, who was one of a number of public officials who turned up for the hearing.
He said residents he spoke to were positive about the widening and the proposed bike lanes, which he said are badly needed.
“I don’t see any red faces or people jumping up and down and hollering,” he said. “I think it’s been so long anticipated and people know it needs to be here, and it needs to happen, so most people here are very positive about it.
“Of course, those whose property is impacted negatively might have a different opinion, and I can understand that, too.”
Richmond Hill City Council member Johnny Murphy, a developer, said he is all for the project, though he still has questions about the time frame.
“It’s about time,” he said. “It’s been delayed for so many years and it’s such an important part of the plan for the county’s expansion and growth … but I think the plan looks pretty good.”
Roadwork could be a headache for commuters, but Burnsed said that’s the reason the county moved ahead with paving Harris Trail Extension. And there seems little doubt the road needs widening, given longstanding plans to build thousands of new homes in South Bryan.
Though derailed for a while by the recession, projects still call for more than 7,000 new homes in the area served by Highway 144.
One of those who has plans now that the road is being widened is Jacob Harris, who owns property off 144 near Ford Plantation.
He first gave a statement to court reporter Mynjuan Jones, who was on hand to take statements for those who preferred not to write their own, before noting he was in favor of the project.
“It needs to be widened,” Harris said of the highway. “There’s no use in having traffic pile up coming down 144 and there’s nobody moving. It needs to be widened.”
Once it is, Harris said he plans on “putting hotels on my property, leasing it out. I’m thinking about doing big things.”
It’s been seven years since the DOT held a public hearing on the project, which dates back to 2000. Funding has been an issue, though this one will be paid for largely by federal dollars.
The DOT’s Jill Nagle said 80 percent of the 144 project will be federally funded. The rest will come from the state.
But uncertainties in funding could change timelines, as could changes in plans or concerns raised in the hearing. The DOT calls them “hiccups.”
Still, Ivory said he’s positive the project will move ahead as planned. That’s something residents probably heard in 2006 when officials said roadwork might begin in 2010.
Ivory acknowledged the process has been slow.
“It’s been a while, but it’s like I told someone earlier,” he said. “We’re closer now than we’ve ever been.”