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Bentley’s Big Road Show

Five “big rock” projects lead the list in a $1.4 billion road building program Gov. Robert Bentley has proclaimed biggest in Alabama history.

Business leaders who’d like to see Alabama’s highway system significantly upgraded have gotten their wish. The Alabama Department of Transportation has a series of ambitious infrastructure projects in process and more are planned for the coming years.

In addition, numerous smaller road and bridge improvement projects across the state have been kicked off through the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program announced by Gov. Robert Bentley’s office last year. The announcement called ATRIP “the largest road and bridge improvement program in Alabama’s history.”

Many of both the larger and smaller projects will be paid for not only with federal, state and local dollars currently available, but by borrowing in anticipation of future federal revenues. Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles Bond Program bonds are being used.

While ALDOT avoided borrowing in the past and operated pay as you go, the philosophy has changed under Bentley’s leadership, says ALDOT Transportation Director John Cooper.  The current thinking takes into account today’s relatively low financing rates and escalating construction costs. “It likely will cost far less in the long run to get these projects going, and the public will benefit from being able to use the resources sooner,” Cooper says.

In addition, getting major transportation projects off the ground can be time consuming, because of challenges and potential law suits by property owners, environmentalists and historical groups. “We’re focusing on pushing through the design and approvals for priority projects and then worrying about the money,” Cooper says.

ALDOT currently has 410 projects, $1.4 billion worth of construction, in the works, Cooper says. The agency’s gross annual budget averages about $1.2 billion, and ALDOT typically spends $900 million directly on road projects each year. About $700 million in new work typically is let for bid annually.

ALDOT project and budget totals are expected to significantly increase as ALDOT ramps up its infrastructure improvement push, Cooper says. About $1.3 billion worth of ATRIP work will be designated for bid letting over about five years. Several billion additional dollars are expected to be spent for five major projects now in the works or being planned. “I like to call those our big rock projects,” Cooper says.

The transportation director keeps a jar of rocks on his desk to illustrate the idea that ALDOT has to set priorities for roadwork. “You have to put the large rocks in before the small rocks or the large rocks won’t fit,” he explains.

ALDOT’s concern for safety is one of the major motivations for the first of what Cooper calls the agency’s five big rock projects, the Interstate 20/59 project in Birmingham’s Central Business District.

The lifespan of the elevated I-20/59 bridges is coming to a close as traffic levels have soared above the roadways’ intended design level. “The bridges were originally designed for 80,000 cars a day and are used by 157,000 cars a day,” Cooper says. “The new design will allow for better traffic flow and pull off lanes in case of accidents. The under bridges are expected to be about five feet higher to allow for more light and openness for pedestrian traffic.”

The cost of the project, which will be the largest ALDOT has ever taken on, is estimated at about $300 million. The major artery is expected to be completely closed for 12 to 14 months during phase II of the project. About 6,600 feet of bridge sections will be constructed nearby as the roadway is assembled in pieces.

Public hearings on the overall project are coming to a close and Cooper expects phase I to be let for bid in 2014. About $100 million will be spent for phase I, upgrading the 11th Avenue North corridor from Interstate 65 to I-59/20. The improvements will include a highway access ramp modification at I-65 and 31st Street North that will allow for better access to Birmingham’s civic center complex.

A second big rock project, the new Interstate 22 and I-65 interchange under construction, is expected to be complete by September 2014. This final segment of Corridor X, to be renamed I-22, is being built by Archer Western Contractors at a cost of $164 million. The network of 14 ramps and 14 bridges will carry traffic between the two interstates. I-22 will link Birmingham with Memphis, creating a freeway from downtown Atlanta to Oklahoma City. “Although we have larger projects planned, at the time it was the largest single project ALDOT had ever let for bid,” Cooper says.

ALDOT has been pursuing its third big rock project, the Birmingham Northern Beltline, for the past 20 years. Complete construction of the 52-mile expressway from I-59/20 in Bessemer to I-59 north of Trussville could take 15 to 25 years and will cost billions of dollars, at least $4.7 billion by recent estimates. The Federal Highway Administration has approved the beltline, which Congress has designated to become part of the Appalachian Development Highway System.

The first beltline segment planned for construction will run from Alabama 75 to Alabama 79 North and is expected to cost about $100 million. ALDOT is waiting to get permission from the Army Corps of Engineers because of stream crossings before it lets the bid. The Black Warrior Riverkeeper has filed suit against ALDOT on the beltline project. “No matter what we do, there will always be someone who doesn’t like it. We know to expect that and try to find a solution that will best serve the public,” Cooper says.

Replacing George Wallace Tunnel in Mobile, a frequent traffic chokepoint on Interstate 10, with a bridge over the Mobile River is ALDOT’s fourth big rock project. Already there have been several public hearings and the project is going through the environmental evaluation process. Cooper estimates the project cost at about $800 million. “The Wallace tunnel is now obsolete. This project represents a major improvement for the flow of traffic through Mobile,” Cooper says.

ALDOT’s fifth big rock project, the 12.8-mile Baldwin Beach Expressway, is currently under construction and expected to be complete sometime next summer. The expressway project, which is costing about $100 million, includes a new interchange at I-10. The expressway will provide a needed north-south corridor for beach traffic and another hurricane evacuation route. A future extension of the expressway to I-65 is under discussion. “We want to get everyone to the beach and back as safely and quickly as possible,” Cooper says.

Participate in Priority Setting

Safety is the biggest factor for the agency in setting priorities, says Cooper. Roads and bridges are inspected by ALDOT on a regular basis and reports of problems investigated.The public is encouraged to alert ALDOT about safety issues concerning Alabama’s 11,000 miles of roadways and 5,729 bridges via the ALDOT website. To report online, see the “Report a Road Concern” link under “Travel Information” on the homepage of dot.state.al.us. “We often get reports from the public through various means. Individuals call and write letters, as well as report through our website,” Cooper says.

Visual inspections of Alabama’s roads and bridges by ALDOT crews are ongoing. A specialized team of high-level inspectors evaluates Alabama’s bridges on an annual basis. “Bridges deemed structurally deficient yet safe for road travel are inspected monthly to ensure they remain safe for road traffic. When bridges are struck by trucks or barges, they are inspected to ensure they are still structurally sound,” Cooper says.

Kathy Hagood is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Homewood.

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