Georgia sinkholes may not spread to house-swallowing size — like ones that have opened up in Florida in recent years — but the Georgia Department of Transportation doesn’t just dismiss them as random acts of nature.
Every year, as part of preventive maintenance efforts, the DOT inspects one-fourth of the pipes in rights of way that serve interstates and state routes and, based on those inspections, relines or replaces pipe, district spokeswoman Teri Pope said.
Last fiscal year, 1,115 feet of pipes were relined and 2,280 feet were replaced in the DOT’s District 1, or Northeast Georgia.
Sinkholes are “a substructure problem that ... can’t be seen until the problem reaches the surface,” Pope said.
That was the case Aug. 4, when a property owner at Lakeshore Place shopping center in Gainesville found a hole about the size of basketball in the parking lot at Ga. 53 Connector/John Morrow Parkway and Pearl Nix Parkway and notified DOT.
It turned out that was only the opening to a hole about 22 feet deep, as workers digging into the earth and peeling back asphalt next to Barry’s Better Menswear discovered.
Upon inspection, workers determined the sinkhole was caused by pipe failure, Pope said.
“Water wasn’t channelized because the drainage system broke, so the water eroded the area over time,” she said.
Repairs could be finished by Wednesday, weather permitting.
The DOT is wrestling with another gaping hole in Northeast Georgia — on Ga. 51 in Hart County at Lake Hartwell.
The sinkhole, discovered May 6, has been a bigger challenge, with dump trucks removing more than 500 loads, or about 10,000 tons of dirt, from the work zone.
The $1 million repair includes creating a dry work area displacing Lake Hartwell water, giving the crew a place to work.
Delays set in as crews rerouted utilities, but “fire protection and water accessibility had to be maintained for the safety of the community,” District Engineer Bayne Smith said.
The project now is set for Oct. 13 completion.
DOT has responded to five other sinkholes in District 1 since 2009, including one in June 2010 at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce off E.E. Butler Parkway.
Aging infrastructure is another “contributing factor to the frequency of sinkholes,” Pope said.
And Gainesville-Hall County has Lake Lanier, built in the 1950s, on its borders with “most of our major state routes built around the lake all aging at the same rate.”
A drain on resources to help fund routine maintenance efforts, as well as road projects, is a concern.
“Problems continue to grow as funding decreases because of improved gas mileage for vehicles,” Pope said.
“Cars go further on a gallon, so motorists purchase less gas to maintain a growing system of interstates and state routes.”
That’s particularly an issue at the federal level, where Congress has been debating how to shore up the Highway Trust Fund, which supplies the federal portion of state road projects.
Earlier this month, the Senate passed a House bill that allocated $10.8 billion to keep highway and transit programs going through the end of May 2015.
But officials are saying a long-term solution needs to be developed.
“We can’t just rip something off the shelf or throw a project together,” said Josh Waller, the Georgia Department of Transportation’s director of governmental affairs.