$800 Million Corridor ’X’ to Open Doorways in Northwest Alabama

Tue July 22, 2003 - Southeast Edition
Cindy Riley

After decades of planning and years of initial roadwork, a highway linking Birmingham, AL, to Memphis, TN, is closer to becoming a reality. Corridor “X,” a limited access interstate-type route, is entering new phases of construction in Alabama’s Walker and Jefferson counties.

“Ninety-two miles of the corridor will run through Alabama,” explained J.F. Horsley, division engineer of the Birmingham office of the State Department of Transportation.

“It’s being built as the best interstate we’ve got in Alabama. Most of it actually meets interstate standards, and there are members of Congress who want to give it an interstate number. There’s already a bill in committee, although there are portions of the corridor in Tennessee that don’t meet the qualifications.”

Corridor “X,” a high-priority project, is part of the Appalachian Development Highway System and was part of a master plan to bring controlled access highways to Appalachia.

Authorized in 1978, it was designed to stretch across the western hills of Alabama (going through Walker and Marion counties) before reaching Birmingham. In Birmingham, the corridor was created to tie into I-65 near mile marker 265, with a directional interchange and a short connector extending to U.S. 31. Corridor “X” will connect with the proposed Northern Beltline, halfway between I-65 and existing U.S. 78 near Graysville.

There are plenty of challenges for work crews. “The route through Jefferson and Walker counties, for example, is in mining areas, and that means lots of extra excavation and recompacting,” said Horsley.

“A lot of correction work had to be done. They’ve had to relocate permitted holding ponds, where things were designed so that water wouldn’t run off and pollute nearby areas. And we’re talking about very rough terrain with huge cuts and fills in these sections. In some areas there were up to 4 or 5 million cubic yards of dirt that had to be moved.

“We’ve also had to relocate a number of homeowners. In the Birmingham community of Smithfield Manor, we purchased most of the houses there. They were ready to sell and we provided good relocation services. But it’s just one more matter that had to be handled,” said Horsley.

According to state officials, including former Governor Don Siegelman, Corridor “X” will help attract businesses that offer high-tech jobs to Northwest Alabama. He called the route ’critical’ if Alabama hoped to attract employers who will keep individuals working in the region.

Corridor “X”s route includes parts of Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. In Birmingham, the easternmost section of the U.S. 78 freeway will be composed of six lanes, with an eight-lane section near the junction with I-65, and the section extending west from the city’s metropolitan area to the existing U.S. 78 expressway.

With an estimated final price tag nearing $800 million, Corridor “X” is proving to be an extremely costly project.

“From Jasper to Birmingham you’re looking at about $12 to $14 million per mile,” added Horsley. “That’s pretty expensive, without question.”

“This is a very intense and time-consuming endeavor. We started work on Corridor “X” close to 15 years ago. It’s something we’ve done in stages, beginning in the northwest corner of Alabama coming all the way into Jefferson County,” explained David Shiflett, Alabama Bridge Builders Inc. controller. “Through the years we’ve sometimes served as the primary contractor or as a subcontractor, depending on the particular stretch we were working.

“Often sections of roads were built that could be opened more economically,” added Shiflett. “Bridges do cost more than just paving, so some were delayed or cut out.”

Equipment used for bridges on Corridor “X” included a fleet of Link-Belt cranes, in order to drive piling. Alabama Bridge also subcontracted caissons to Russo Inc. of Birmingham and built substructures. In addition, workers set a combination of either red-iron beams or pre-stressed concrete beams and poured numerous concrete decks.

“We’ve used literally thousands of feet of steel H-piling, thousands of cubic yards of ready-mix concrete, millions of pounds of reinforced steel and thousands of feet of girders thus far on Corridor,” said Shiflett. He noted the biggest problem for his company has been getting access due to rugged land conditions.

“It can be very difficult to get to bridge sites to move large equipment. We’ve had to build dams and make substantial fills in order to get a work platform. We’ve also had to install a number of temporary work bridges. And we’ve built as many as seven bridges on one specific project,” Shiflett explained. “It’s unique because this is the largest scale project since the interstate system was completed here in the early 1980’s. It will be a major improvement for time travel and public safety. Anyone who has ridden old U.S. Highway 78, especially the two-lane section between Carbon Hill and Winfield, knows the road can be downright scary at times, especially when you meet oncoming coal trucks.”

A feasibility study also has been proposed for possibly extending the corridor to Interstate 20/59 near Birmingham International Airport. It’s believed this move would save approximately 5 mi. and would help avoid congestion both along I-20/59 and I-65 near downtown Birmingham.

The completed sections of U.S. 78 in other regions have milepost numbered exits. Between Winfield and the Mississippi line, the signs follow a routine design but are a varied blue-and-white in color. The phrases “Appalachian Destination” and “Corridor ’X’” are clearly featured.

According to Shiflett, “There are still several gaps in the project as a whole, including quite a few here in Jefferson County. There are still contracts to be decided and, of course, funding is always a consideration.”

“Money is always a key part of any major construction, especially in this case. Because this isn’t a true interstate, the allotment of federal funds, etc., is a different process using percentages,” said Horsley.

“By the end of the year, however, we should have all the grading and bridges under contract from I-65 in Birmingham to Memphis, as well as some of the base and paving projects going.”

“It’s just such a major project you can’t expect to get everything done as quickly as many might hope. The latest report may have listed a targeted completion date of 2006 or 2007, but I think it’s going to be even longer before everything’s in place and ready to go,” added Horsley.