As journalists we can relate to Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, the weatherman Phil Connors who covers the same groundhog celebration in Punxsutawney, Penn. every year. Connors is charged with putting a new and entertaining spin on the festivities, but his cynicism ultimately gets the best of him. His bad attitude lands him in a never ending loop where he’s doomed to relive that day over and over again.
With the real Groundhog Day upon us, Georgia Department of Transportation’s massive project on Highway 53 pops into mind… yet again. Like Connors and his repeat coverage of Punxsutawney Phil at the Gobbler’s Knob Festival, we’ve covered the GDOT project ad nauseum for three decades and we’re ready to get this thing wrapped up.
(For those of you unfamiliar with it, the project will drastically change Highway 53 from Highway 515 into downtown Jasper, on through to the Burnt Mountain Road intersection. Changes include significant widening, adding two additional lanes, a raised median, and making some sections one-way and splitting them along the route so there will be two one-way sections.)
If the project was a groundhog, for us it would most certainly pop out of its hole and see its shadow – but instead of destining us to more winter, in the project’s case it feels like we’re perpetually destined for more delays. Case in point, the top story in the March 14, 2013 edition of this paper included a photo of former Mayor John Weaver looking over a huge map of Jasper. The headline was “Massive Road Project Revived for Jasper.” The article, referring to the Highway 53 project, said construction was slated for 2017. It also reported the project came on the scene in 1993, a whopping 30+ years ago.
Ironically, 1993 was also the same year Groundhog Day hit the big screen. To put the amount of time that has passed into perspective, that was the same year the World Wide Web went public. It’s also ironic that the film’s director Harold Ramis originally estimated Phil Connors relived the same day for 10 years, but he later concluded, “I think the 10-year estimate is too short. It takes at least 10 years to get good at anything, and allotting for the down time and misguided time he spent, it had to be more like 30 or 40.”)
So here we are, 30 years into GDOT’s Highway 53 project being on the books – no doubt with some down time and misguided time spent during those years – and us sitting with our fingers crossed hoping we can get it wrapped up well before we reach the 40 year mark.
In what could be taken as a glimmer of hope, the location and design approval for the project’s most recent incarnation was approved in the summer of 2022. GDOT’s website shows the construction let date is now 2027, but we also see documents there that indicate 2025. Either way, the legal advertisement GDOT ran in this publication in 2022 said construction will take two-and-a-half years once it begins. Going with that earliest let date it’ll be at least 2028 before the project is completed — but GDOT officials have said it’s really really going to happen this time. Still, just like Phil Connors hears Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” every morning on the radio in Groundhog Day, we’ve heard that one before.
We’re not excited about 30 months of construction, but the project’s looming presence is having an impact on city and utilities planning, and impacts on business and property owners along the route as well. We know Jasper leaders, as just one example, have had to sideline a sidewalk project because there’s no point building sidewalks if they’ll be torn up in a year. Several property/business owners – some of whom are in the project’s right-of-way and will be demolished and forced to move (see front page article) – are in limbo trying to plan for their future.
Just like it did for Connors in the “tiny little town in western Pennsylvania,” Punxsutawney, we’d like to see the cycle end in our little city of Jasper and get this project done. We understand it takes a lot to plan and secure funding for something of this magnitude, but three decades is enough, GDOT. Pickens has had significantly more growth in the last few years with more to come, meaning the project is warranted now more than ever. Please no more delays.