Highway access a growing pain for Milton

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Neil Johnson
Friday, February 28, 2014

MILTON—A developer wants to move forward on a project off Highway 59 on Milton's east side, but the state Department of Transportation is digging in its heels over road access to the property, officials say.

Mayor Brett Frazier said the city is working with a developer who wants to build a $2 million to $3 million commercial development on a parcel at the corner of Chicago Street and Highway 59 just west of the Highway 26 bypass in the city's Crossroads Business Park.

Frazier said annexation and land acquisition for the 10-acre lot are in the works. The project proposal, which has not been publicly announced, was on track to go in front of the city's plan commission soon. He said site plans from the developer could come in a matter of weeks.

Yet last week, Frazier said, the city learned a planned drive off Chicago Street to access the development would likely not meet state criteria for highway “access control.”

“When the roads changed with the bypass, locations for access and everything got shifted around. There are now rules and restrictions, and the DOT has some ingress (exit driveway) restrictions on one of the side streets (Chicago Street). It makes one of the lots inaccessible,” Frazier said.

Frazier said the DOT restriction has delayed the development deal.

“We've been excited about this project and certainly anxious to be able to announce the development. This (DOT issue) really is the last T to be crossed. The only thing stopping it from coming on online, really, is the DOT access,” Frazier said.

The DOT's resistance comes shortly after the Highway 26 bypass was completed and when the city has begun to market parcels along Highway 59 in the Crossroads Business Park.

City traffic patterns have begun to shift, with the bulk of through traffic—as many as 16,000 vehicles a day—now taking the bypass. The city is trying to focus on developing the bypass corridor, which the DOT touted as an economic development benefit at a time when businesses within the city fear loss of consumer traffic.

“We didn't ask for the bypass, and we didn't have control over it,” Frazier said. “But one of the things the DOT said is the new (Highway 26 bypass) outlay would set up new opportunities for development there.”

The city had worked with the DOT on developing the highway corridor, supplying the agency with its Smart Growth plans as well as the city's comprehensive plans for future development along Highway 59.

Frazier said the city's smart growth plans wouldn't include any new access drives along Highway 59, which makes side street access crucial for development along the whole corridor.

“We're curious to see how the DOT plans to cooperate now because this is about not just one project, but it's a sign for future of development along a whole corridor that's now the entryway to our city,” he said.

Frazier wouldn't give specific details about the potential development. He did say it would not create a major employment boom, but it's the type of development that could bring retail and potential dining.

It would be the first significant commercial development in the park, and it would be done without Tax Increment Financing, he said. That means it would provide instant tax revenue to the city and other taxing entities.

State DOT Southwest Region Director Joe Olson said the city has requested a break in the DOT's access management plan on Highway 59 to allow at least one access drive along Chicago Street for the proposed development. The management plan is based on state laws that govern highway access. 

Olson said he doesn't have any details or plans for the development, and the DOT is unaware of how much traffic would be coming and going from the development.

He said the DOT expects that over time Highway 59 will develop a blend of commercial and industrial developments. To “protect” the pace and the flow of traffic on that corridor, the DOT “limits access where it's practical,” he said.

“On that roadway (Chicago Street), what we attempted to do is manage access to about 500 feet from Highway 59,” Olson said. “Let's say you've got an access 150 feet away from intersection, and you've got a bunch of vehicles trying to turn in. You could create impact for vehicles on Highway 59 trying to turn. You could impact the operations of that intersection,” Olson said.

There are no immediate plans for a stoplight at the four-way intersection at Chicago Street and Highway 59, Olson explained.

Olson said access to the highway's streets is an important long-term consideration.

“At some point in time, if you're not controlling access, you have the chance to degrade the flow of traffic along the corridor. If you're a business, you want more access. But if you degrade an entire corridor so that people (motorists) don't' want to be there, it's not good for the rest of commerce and business on the drive,” Olson said.   

The DOT could meet with city officials as early as next week, and Olson said those talks could bring potential alterations or solutions. But he said the ultimate decision rests with a state highway panel that makes final decisions on access control.

The DOT could ask the city or the developer to complete a traffic impact analysis on the development before approving access, Olson said.

Frazier said  DOT's hard rules may make sense to engineers, but they can leave city planners and businesses willing to invest scratching their heads.

“Some of this makes good sense on paper, but where the earth mover meets the ground, it doesn't make much sense,” Frazier said. “Safety and traffic flow is an important part of a decision, but economic development should be featured, too.”

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