East Conley Road bridge in Clayton County, GA Credit: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent / The Clayton Crescent

Overview:

Conley residents say heavy trucking has destroyed two bridges in their community. Why is it taking years to bring those bridges up to standard?

UPDATE 12:38 a.m. 8/17: CLARIFIES that the East Conley Road bridge is in Clayton County

For Dr. Juaney Lynn-Rigsby, the drive from her Conley home to Moreland Avenue should take three minutes.

Now that a second bridge is out, she has to take the long way around, which takes 20 minutes.

Lynn-Rigsby and fellow Conley resident Gary Sparrow say heavy truck traffic on residential streets is to blame—traffic from trucks that weigh too much to cross bridges on East Conley Road and Cedar Grove Road. Both of those bridges are now closed due to life-threatening structural damage, forcing residents to take lengthy detours just to get to nearby Moreland Avenue, which leads directly north to I-285 and Atlanta.

Conley residents Gary Sparrow (left) and Dr. Juaney Lynn-Rigsby (right) update The Clayton Crescent via Zoom on the ongoing issues in their unincorporated town. The East Conley Neighborhood Association has had to fight several battles, across Dekalb, Clayton, and Henry Counties, all of which have jurisdiction over different parts of Conley, over illegal businesses running junkyards and parking heavy machinery. They also have been fighting to keep heavy trucks from cutting through their residential streets and say the increase in big-rig traffic has torn up roads and shut down two critical bridges due to structural damage from excessive truck weights. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

They say they’ve gotten a lot of help from Dekalb County District 3 Commissioner Larry Johnson, but that residents are still struggling with truck traffic in their neighborhoods. Metro Atlanta CID calls Conley “Truckers Alley”. But the area has a great deal of residential zoning that has been around for decades, and the people who live there resent trucks tearing up their streets and bridges.

Just before the pandemic, The Clayton Crescent covered the East Conley Zoning Committee’s protest of big rigs cutting through their neighborhood. Their residential streets are not built for continual 18-wheeler traffic. Signs are posted everywhere stating just that—including at the bridges that are now shut down.

A sign on Cedar Grove Road in Conley lists weight limits for the bridge that crosses high above Norfolk Souther’s train tracks. Conley residents blame increased truck traffic for damage to the bridge, which has been shut down for almost three years. Large cracks cross the bridge and kudzu and weeds are taking it over. Despite staggered concrete barricades, a driver in a sedan sped across the bridge while The Clayton Crescent was photographing the structure. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)
A car zig-zags through a series of concrete barricades and crosses the structurally-compromised bridge on Cedar Grove Road in Conley. Residents say heavy truck traffic damaged this bridge and another on East Conley Road, forcing them to drive nearly half an hour out of their way just to access Moreland Avenue. The Clayton Crescent saw at least two large cracks fully spanning the bridge on August 16, 2022. This bridge was built in 1965 and has been closed since March 2020. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

In June 2020, when Dekalb Police were ticketing truckers amid cheering residents, things got a little better. But as soon as the police leave, Lynn-Rigsby said, the trucks are back again.

Dr. Juaney Lynn-Rigsby (Center) and Gary Sparrow (right) and members of the East Conley Zoning Committee protest big-rig trucks rolling through their neighborhood in June 2020. Dozens of residents waved signs and yelled, “No big trucks!” as Dekalb County Police ticketed truck drivers for using residential streets as cut-throughs. At the time, they warned The Clayton Crescent that heavy rucks were ignoring weight limits on local bridges. Two years later, two major bridges in Conley have been shut down indefinitely due to structural damage, forcing residents to take lengthy, circuitous routes to reach Moreland Avenue. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

On the East Conley Zoning Committee’s Facebook page, Miriam Simon posted photos of the second bridge’s barricades on August 5, writing, “The bridge on East Conley is closed. We are officially landlocked.”

A barricade warns drivers the bridge is out at East Conley Road, August 8, 2022. Residents blame years of increasingly heavy truck traffic cutting through residential streets and crossing bridges that weren’t designed for such traffic. Two bridges that Conley residents use to access Moreland Avenue are now structurally compromised and have been shut down. This one is in Clayton County. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)
A sign on East Conley Road warns drivers of the bridge’s five-ton weight limit. Conley residents say truckers routinely ignore these signs and that heavy truck traffic has done structural damage to two bridges linking the community to Moreland Avenue. The East Conley Road Bridge is in Clayton County. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)
Concrete barricades and standing water on the East Conley Road bridge, Clayton County, August 8, 2022. The bridge is one of two that have been closed due to structural damage. Conley residents say truck drivers have ignored weight-limit signs that have been posted for years. Truck traffic to and from I-285 and I-675 has increased dramatically in recent years, especially since the warehouse boom in North Clayton and South Dekalb Counties. Conley is already home to several trucking and industrial businesses that depend on big rigs and dump trucks to move heavy loads. Some of those businesses operate illegally in areas zoned as residential. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent) Credit: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent / The Clayton Crescent

People in Conley have to work extra-hard to get their elected officials’ attention. They might live in Clayton, Dekalb, or Henry County. Conley itself, like Rex, is unincorporated, so it has no city government to go to bat for residents. And whether the issue is truck traffic on residential streets or unlicensed businesses playing one county against another when the residents hold them accountable, getting any jurisdiction to take responsibility is a tall order.

Take the unlicensed junkyard, where Lynn-Rigsby said she recently saw the manager running a backhoe. The neighborhood had to track down the owner and haul him into Dekalb County Magistrate Court. A judge ordered the site be cleared off in stages, under penalty of fines and jail time. According to Lynn-Rigsby, the manager asked the neighboring Buddhist temple if they would mind him putting his junk behind their property.

Here’s the kicker: These things are happening in a residential area, according to zoning maps.

According to WSB-TV’s Ashli Lincoln, Dekalb County’s Board of Commissioners approved $4.1 million in Special Option Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds to fix the bridge. In March 2021, the county hired a contractor to do the repairs. Since then, they’ve had to work out technical details with utility companies and Norfolk Southern. Lincoln wrote that the bridge also has “a sewer line, a gas line, fiber optic cables, and an active railroad all running up underneath the bridge.”

The Clayton Crescent took a look at Dekalb County’s final SPLOST Project list. It shows a total of $7 million dedicated to all bridge repairs countywide:

A check of Dekalb County’s SPLOST webpage shows that “DeKalb County’s SPLOST allows unrestricted funding for transportation and public safety projects.” From April 2018 through March 2024, Dekalb County estimates SPLOST will have brought in $388,042,978 for projects outside the municipalities.

The county says it uses that money “to leverage other funding sources available from the state and federal governments, other local governments, non-profit organizations, and community improvement districts.” In other words, the one-cent SPLOST that Dekalb County voters passed is used to match federal, state, and other funds, which the county combines to pay for repairs like those needed at the Cedar Grove Road and East Conley Road bridges.

Dekalb SPLOST Transportation’s webpage also says, “SPLOST Transportation projects will support economic development in the county and improve high priority corridors.”

But a check of Dekalb County’s SPLOST Project Map on August 16 didn’t show the Cedar Grove Road bridge project, much less its current status:

Dekalb County maps of SPLOST projects does not show the Cedar Grove Road bridge. (Source: Dekalb County SPLOST ARCGIS Map)

A SPLOST Citizens Oversight Group is in place to make sure that projects get prioritized and that the money is accounted for. The Dekalb County BOC appoints its members. For District 3, Commissioner Larry Johnson appointed Alice Bussey as the citizen representative.

The SPLOST Citizens Oversight Group’s next monthly meeting is scheduled for August 25 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and you can attend via Zoom. You can join the meeting at https://dekalbcountyga.zoom.us/j/7753778046 or you can call in toll-free at (888) 270-9936, then enter the conference code 217687. Be sure to mute your audio when you are not speaking to the meeting.

“I want them to fix the bridge”

Al Wilson, who owns Conley Package Store just yards from the bridge on Cedar Grove Road, estimates he’s lost about a quarter of his store’s business since structural damage, which residents blame on increased heavy trucking in the area, forced the bridge to shut down. He says he’s lost about $250,000 in annual sales, but still has to pay more than $4,000 in property tax on the business each year. Asked what he wants from his elected officials in Dekalb County, Wilson said, “I want them to fix the bridge.” (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

For Al Wilson, who owns Conley Package Store, having the bridge closed for the past two and a half years has cost him dearly.

Retired after 30 years with the U.S. Postal Service, Wilson took over the liquor store as a way to keep busy. “I mean, it really it was all day when I first come here but most of the traffic come in after, let’s just say when the businesses around here close, then they come in and buy… you know, neighborhood traffic and all this stuff right there. But the business has dropped off significantly. We used to do over a million dollars of sales a year. Now we’re probably down to about 750 [thousand in sales].”

While he says the business is surviving, “We still have to pay the property taxes. They don’t cut that down. They still want that amount, that full amount, you know, so it’s kind of rough, but we’re making it.” He says property tax runs about $4,600.

The Cedar Grove Road bridge shutdown also means more work and less profit for Wilson.

“You know, I can’t hire employees like I did before because there’s not enough traffic to warrant hiring anyone.”

Al Wilson’s Conley Package Store sits at what has essentially become a dead end, just yards from the Cedar Grove Road bridge in part of Conley that is under Dekalb County’s jurisdiction. Wilson says he still gets customers who work at nearby businesses, but that he’s lost about a quarter of his annual sales since the bridge was shut down a few years ago. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Wilson says he wants to know where the money is to fix the bridge. He says that one of the nearby trucking companies “offered the county to fix it themselves, but the county won’t accept that. Which is ridiculous. And then they had one to offer to buy the bridge, which they couldn’t sell it, I understand that part. But long as Dekalb County have the money to fix that bridge? They could’ve accepted that. But then they would have to explain what happened to the money that [President Joe] Biden allowed to fix the roads and the bridge.”

He also wonders if the East Conley Road bridge was closed as a form of retaliation.

“And so then they go out and close the other bridge. And they just cutting off my customer base. And I think it’s because I got on TV the last time with Channel 11. They trying to take vengeance against me.”

That bridge is in Clayton County.

Cracks crossing the bridge on Cedar Grove Road in Conley on August 16, 2022. The bridge has been shut down for almost three years due to structural damage. which neighbors say was caused by an increase in heavy truck traffic on roads not designed for that much weight. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Detour

People who live in Conley have had to rearrange their lives around the bridges shutting down. And they have different ideas about how long the bridges have been closed.

On Facebook, Elizabeth Martinez said, “Hoping they fix the bridges soon! Husband has been taking a detour for 4 years now!”

On Nextdoor, Jay Ismael wrote, “Conley rd bridge out cedar Grove Bridge out I’m down to 2 routes I can use to get home at the rate we are going in about a month I gues[s] I’ll have [to] dust off the bicycle to get home. Thanks alot Clayton/Dekalb county.”

Shawnte Jolly replied, “This is ridiculous the cedar grove bridge has neen out for over 4 years now this doesn’t make any s[e]nse. At this point I think we the residents should be writing to our city officials.”

The problem is, Conley doesn’t have any city officials. What’s more, the roads and bridges come under county and state jurisdiction. Dekalb County and Georgia Department of Transportation would deal with the Cedar Grove Road bridge.

Latasha Mitchell wrote, “Cedar Grove has been closed 7 years going on 8, so don’t expect to see E. Conley to open soon.”

GDOT shut down the Cedar Grove bridge in March 2020. Lincoln reported the county expects to reopen the bridge in 2024. That’s another year and a half, barring any unforeseen delays.

Since the Cedar Grove Road bridge was closed, more truckers cut through Conley residential streets. That put more wear and tear on the East Conley Road bridge, which was only rated for five tons. The Clayton Crescent saw several trucks crossing that bridge while covering a June 202o demonstration by members of the East Conley Zoning Committee.

A big rig turns onto Tanners Church Road from Grant Road, August 16, 2022. Increased truck traffic has damaged roads and bridges in Conley. Two bridges are now shut down, one of them for nearly three years, despite constant efforts from local residents to get Dekalb and Clayton County officials to repair them. Signs throughout town clearly show the roads and bridges were not designed to handle heavy trucking weights. Conley is unincorporated and spans parts of Clayton, Dekalb, and Henry Counties, making it difficult for residents to hold bad actors accountable. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)
Big-rig trucks turn northbound onto Moreland Avenue at Cedar Grove Road, August 16, 2022. The bridge on Cedar Grove Road, which crosses over Norfolk Southern’s railroad track and is in Dekalb County, has been out for almost three years due to structural damage. Residents blame increased trucking traffic in recent years. The bridge closure also has cut the Conley Liquor Store’s business by 25 percent and forced the owner to lay off staff. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)
A fallen tree under the East Conley Road bridge in Clayton County is jammed against a pipeline, August 8, 2022. Clayton County Transportation and Development Director Jeff Metarko told The Clayton Crescent that it’s not unusual for trees to float downstream and get stuck under bridges. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)
A crack spans the width of the Cedar Grove Road bridge, which GDOT shut down more than two years ago. Weeds are growing in the cracks of the bridge in Dekalb County. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

For the foreseeable future, Conley residents will have to take the long way around. That means more money for gasoline, more time for detours, more hassles for the daily commute.

Robin Kemp

Robin Kemp is executive editor and CEO of The Clayton Crescent, which she founded in 2020. She has worked for Gambit, CNN, The Weather Channel, Clayton News, Henry Herald, and numerous freelance outlets....

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