Connecting the Dots - Part 4
Is there a common thread between some of the more controversial efforts in Johns Creek? It would appear so - and it becomes apparent as you begin to connect the dots to get the full picture. This is the fourth and final in a series. Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 can be found here, and Part 3 can be found here.
Never Let a Good GDOT Project Go To Waste
All who have traveled recently along Medlock Bridge Road/SR141 would be aware that work is underway that will ultimately resurface the most heavily traveled thoroughfare in Johns Creek. Given the volume of traffic on the road, this effort will provide a welcome relief from the degradation that had increased after winter weather and abundant rainfall.
Knowing that roadway resurfacing was imminent, Johns Creek’s Public Works Department set about their own effort to advance an agenda that had previously met with significant opposition from some City Council representatives as well as many residents. It was this resurfacing project that provided the back door opportunity to add a third traffic lane in each direction on Medlock Bridge Road/SR141.
Setting the Context
Road widening has been a contentious topic in Johns Creek. Medlock Bridge Road is currently configured with 12-foot lanes. In an effort to avoid the need to widen roads, there have been suggestions that an additional traffic lane could be achieved without widening by narrowing the existing lanes, and converting the current shoulders and bike lanes to accommodate a third traffic lane in the same physical footprint.
Quietly Working Behind the Scenes
Upon becoming aware of the upcoming road resurfacing project, a local resident filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for any requests passed from the City of Johns Creek to GDOT. It was only through this process that a memo describing a Design Deviation Request became public knowledge. The requested deviation was to reduce current lane width from 12-feet to 11-feet. The memo stated that the change was requested as a “traffic calming” measure. Despite that, the memo documented that the reduction in lane width would actually result in an INCREASE in accidents by 3%. View or download the Wolverton memo here.
The subject of the Design Deviation Request memo was a topic during the July 22, 2019 City Council Meeting. It was during this meeting that Public Works Director Lynette Baker defended the request to narrow lanes by stating that it would have a traffic calming effect, and was a precursor to reducing the speed limit on Medlock Bridge Road to a uniform 45 MPH. When questioned, it was revealed that lane narrowing is not a prerequisite for reducing the speed limit, and that there was no guarantee of a request to reduce the speed limit, or if requested, that it would be granted by GDOT. Suggestions that the Design Deviation Request was possibly meant to ease the transition to add an additional traffic lane was denied. The City Council and attending residents were emphatically assured that the request to narrow lanes was solely tied to improvements in traffic safety.
Questioning Boundaries and Authority
Several City Council Members expressed their concern with the sequence of events that unfolded during this process. Clearly, not every decision that City Staff and Public Works have to make needs to be reviewed and approved by City Council. In this instance, however, several Council Members stated their disappointment that a decision of this magnitude and impact was not communicated or shared with the Council. Council Members Bradberry and Endres introduced Resolutions that initially took different approaches to address the situation. Councilman Bradberry sought to rescind the lane narrowing request in order to keep lane widths at 12-feet, and Councilwoman Endres sought to address the process in order to implement more discipline in consequential decisions.
In the End, it Really Was About Increasing Lanes
Despite consistent assurances that the Design Deviation Request to narrow lane width was to improve safety (and even then, contrary to the Wolverton memo), the first memo that was produced internally by Assistant Public Works Director, Chris Haggard, stated clearly that the narrowed lanes are meant to prepare for a third lane in each direction.
The project will involve repaving and restriping Medlock Bridge Road from two 12-foot lanes with a 9-foot paved shoulder to two 11-foot lanes with an 11-foot paved shoulder in each direction. The narrowed lanes would allow for development of a future travel lane in each direction with minimal impacts to property or utilities.
A comparison of the internally written memo dated April 10, 2019, and the Wolverton memo dated May 3, 2019 reveals that the two are a nearly word-for-word match with the primary difference being that the earlier Public Works memo is focused on preparing Medlock Bridge for lane addition while the Wolverton memo repositions the purpose as a public safety effort.
The internal memo stating the purpose of the lane width narrowing as preparation for adding a third lane in each direction was only obtained after Councilman John Bradberry made a request for all internal communications regarding road work projects on Medlock Bridge Road. He was inundated with documents and was only able to find the internal memo after searching through emails and attachments with a fine-tooth comb.
This Raises Serious Ethical Questions
First, why didn’t Public Works communicate or share any information with our elected City Council representatives? Second, how much did we pay Wolverton to effectively change a sentence in a memo that already existed? Third, why did our Public Works Director repeatedly state that there was no intention to add lanes to Medlock Bridge Road? And fourth, why did it require a FOIA request from a resident to obtain the Wolverton memo, and then a detailed communications request from a City Council Member to finally learn the truth of the matter? It’s difficult to come to a conclusion other than there was an organized effort on the part of our outsourced Public Works Department to mask their true intentions from our elected officials, and the public.
Tying it All Together
Part 1 - Public Works makes the case that we are restricted to a very rigid definition of TSPLOST projects that they developed.
Part 2 - Public Works managed the TSPLOST list to define projects that our Elected Officials were never presented for review and approval. Now we’re told we must abide by those project definitions without any discretion. The exercise of discretion is being pursued by other North Fulton cities.
Part 3 - Public Works presents plans to implement Michigan Thru-U intersections that was poorly received by residents. It was shelved for a while, then resurrected, based on assurances that Peachtree Corners is planning to implement Michigan Thru-U intersections in their jurisdiction. This turns out to be false.
Part 4 - Public Works attempts to affect a lane narrowing along Medlock Bridge Road without involving any elected officials. It takes a resident’s FOIA request to determine that Public Works has requested that GDOT narrow the lanes. It takes a City Councilman to sift through countless emails to determine that the true intent is to add lanes to Medlock Bridge Road.
Johns Creek, We Have a Problem
Taken together, it’s clear that we have a problem. Johns Creek has outsourced many city functions to first, CH2M Hill, since acquired by Jacobs Engineering. Other newer cities likewise outsourced some city functions early in their formation history, but every one of those cities has since transitioned those services to direct-hire employees of the city. The actions of our outsourced Public Works Department highlight a very serious and consequential question: in whose interest does our Public Works Department operate? All indications are that it’s NOT in the interest of Johns Creek residents.