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Winding road to raceway

By Michael Davis

The road snakes toward Hampton. Newly paved sections interspersed with older sections.

Road crews busily work to pave the road and build bridges and culverts. Officials say the project is more than 50 percent complete.

But Ga. Highway 20, in the midst of a major rerouting project, may not be open to thousands of race fans pouring into Hampton during the last weekend of the month.

The fourth-to-the-last race of the NASCAR season is expected to draw up to 200,000 race fans throughout the Halloween weekend. State road and law enforcement officials met this week with track officials to finalize their plans to deal with the thousands of extra cars and RVs due to hit Henry streets.

"It's always interesting to get that many people into the speedway," said Atlanta Motor Speedway spokeswoman Angela Revell.

DOT officials said traffic management strategies similar to those used for past races would be employed.

For instance, for the past several races, State Troopers have changed the flow of traffic on U.S. 19/41, allowing all lanes to flow to the track before the race and away from the track after the race. But during the past several race events, officials have directed AMS-bound traffic exiting at 218, the Ga. Highway 20/81 exit in McDonough, off of Highway 20.

Moving traffic off of Highway 20 and onto Ga. Highway 81, track officials say, helps to ease traffic through Hampton, and allows traffic on intersecting Hampton-Locust Grove Road, easier access to the track.

DOT and law enforcement officials also discussed the danger of motorists parking on the shoulder of U.S. 19/41 during the race and walking along the busy roadway before and after the event.

"Walking up that road is very dangerous," said DOT District III Traffic Engineer Keith Rohling.

Project on target

The Georgia Department of Transportation began work on the project known as the "Hampton Bypass" last year. The work was created as two different projects, one leg from Interstate 75 to the Towaliga River and the other from Towaliga to U.S. Highway 19/41 where crews are bridging the highway.

Scott Robinson, the project manager for the DOT on the 5.4-mile I-75 to Towaliga side of the Highway 20 project, said more paving should occur in the next week and there will be noticeable difference evidenced by race day.

"Every 30 days, you'll notice quite a bit done," Robinson said last week.

The two legs of the project were begun at different times, said DOT spokesman Bert Brantley. The bridge side of the project, expected to take longer than the mainly paving project toward the interstate, was begun about six months before the interstate side of the project, which began in January of 2003.

Both projects, however, are on target for completion by September of 2005, according to Brantley.

Despite recent heavy rains that resulted from a series of tropical weather events, work has been slowed very little, Brantley said. "One of the good things is that most of the heavy grading work was done," he said.

Soil grading, he said, requires extended dry conditions.

When the project is complete, Highway 20 will be a four-lane, divided highway connecting I-75 to Highway 19/41, bypassing Hampton to the south.

Impact

While officials at AMS and race fans alike are set to enjoy the benefits of direct interstate-to-raceway access via a 4-lane highway, the effect of the bypass on the city Hampton is unclear.

Last year, AMS president Ed Clark said the project will likely help bring business and commerce to the city of Hampton. Growth and development is always more attractive along busy, high-capacity thoroughfares.

But tiny shop owners in Hampton's downtown business district fear the aging community may no longer be a destination when the road is complete.

"When you start taking your traffic out of the downtown area, sometimes your businesses can suffer," said Linda Hutchison, Hampton's Better Hometown Manager. "I think it will require an effort on the part of the city and Better Hometown to bring the people into downtown."

But, she added, that some of Hampton's traffic passes through without stopping anyway, and the bypass could ease traffic for those who do want to stop in the city.

Salon owner Euleen Smith, who helps organize a fall festival event in Hampton, said the organizing committee changed the date of the festival after low turnouts. For several years, the festival coincided with race weekend.

Hampton residents, she said, seldom leave their homes on race weekend.