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’Cane Corridor: Ala. Eyes Another Route Out of Storm’s Path

Mon October 19, 2009 - Southeast Edition
Kerry Lynn Kirby

Not so long ago, two-lane Baldwin County 181 was a pastoral shortcut for local residents who wanted to avoid the more heavily traveled U.S. 98 and Ala. 59 going north or south.

Then subdivisions and businesses began a kudzu-like takeover of former farmland and woods along the country road, increasing traffic to the point of congestion.

A four-phase project to widen the roadway — now known as Ala. 181 — from just south of U.S. 90 down to U.S. 98 will not only ease that congestion but also will allow the state route to serve an important function: facilitate hurricane evacuation, according to Matthew Ericksen, division construction engineer for the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT).

“This will provide another adequate evacuation route besides state route 59,” Ericksen said.

Mobile Asphalt Company of Mobile, Ala., is the prime contractor on the first phase of the project, which was started June 4, he said.

The job entails transforming the existing two-lane road into a highway, mostly a divided four-lane, from just south of U.S. 90 to just south of Baldwin County 64, Ericksen said.

The $13.4 million project involves not only widening the road but also building up the existing two lanes, he said.

“It was a rural, two-lane country road. The existing pavement did not have much of a structural buildup,” Ericksen said. “This project consists of adding … eight more inches of asphalt on the existing road, due to the condition it was in and increased traffic.”

Mobile Asphalt is doing all of the job’s paving work, which will entail 95,000 tons (86,182 t) of asphalt, according to Josh McElhenney, project manager/estimator for Mobile-based John G. Walton Construction Co., a major subcontractor on the job.

The job covers approximately 3.9 mi, (6.27 km), and the widening work involves installing new ditches, drainage pipe and median turn lanes and leveling the existing road to match grades, McElhenney said.

Mobile Asphalt has subcontracted John G. Walton for approximately $5.2 million of work on the job, said McElhenney, noting his company is performing all of the earthwork, drainage, erosion control and aggregate base material on the project.

Other subcontractors on the job include: C. Thornton Inc. of Mobile, Ala., concrete work; Underground Inc. of Wilmer, Ala., water line; Ozark Striping Co. of Ozark, Ala., striping; and Southern Directional of Wilsonville, Ala., gas main.

The job will entail 130,000 cu. yds. (99,392 cu m) of borrow excavation as well as moving approximately 130,000 cu. yds. of material onsite.

John G. Walton has been averaging 10 to 12 workers on the job, McElhenney said. Equipment includes Komatsu 220 excavators, a John Deere 700 dozer, a Caterpillar D5 dozer, a John Deere 650 dozer, a Komatsu D65 dozer, a Caterpillar motor grader, and Mack and Peterbilt dump trucks. All of the equipment is company-owned.

The job, which is expected to take roughly two years, is on schedule, McElhenney said.

“Utilities are being relocated now. This has caused delays,” he said, “but we were aware of the delays from the beginning.”

Relocating the water and sewer lines is part of the contract, said ALDOT’s Ericksen, noting that utility relocation has been challenging because of how right-of-way issues require the work to alternate from one side of the existing roadway to the other.

Meanwhile, Riviera Utilities, Mediacom and AT&T are doing their own relocation work along the route, he said.

“The road shifts back and forth at three different locations,” said McElhenney, noting that one of the reasons why the new roadway crosses the old road then comes back is to preserve some of the area’s history.

While much of the widening work will just cut a little into fields along the route, creating the wider highway has entailed clearing a direct path, when possible, though it’s sometimes necessary to work around things with the design, Ericksen said.

“We had a lot of large oak trees that had to be removed. There were four structures that had to be removed,” he said. The structures were Paul’s Restaurant at the Baldwin County 64 intersection, as well as an old, abandoned house and two sheds.

At the south end of the project, however, they had to design the highway to go around a hardware store listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Ericksen said.

On the north end, they were allowed to set back the historic red brick pillared entranceway to the Cometti house, which was built by an early family of the area, he said.

Erosion control work on the project included placing some fill through a swamp, which had to be done in a way to minimize turbidity in the runoff. The swamp portion fell under Walton’s subcontract, he said.

Workers went in, removed muck, placed the GEOGRID and, to reduce turbidity, backfilled with whitewash sand shipped up from Gulf Shores, Ala., and installed riprap at the right of way, Ericksen said.

Normally, you would just use a sand-clay base in an area like that, he said.

Even with the relatively close proximity of the beach to the project, going with whitewash sand meant about four times the normal cost, Ericksen said. But with the sand-clay base, you can’t help but lose turbid water when it rains, so the sand fill keeps the project in ADEM compliance.

The work has caused a few delays for motorists, but the road has stayed open most of the time, McElhenney said.

Due to the utilities relocation, crews are working on the north and south ends first and then will go back in between to widen those areas, he said.

The first phase has an estimated completion date of December 2010, Ericksen said.

The next section of Ala. 181 to be widened will stretch from just south of Baldwin County 64 to just south of Ala. 104 and is in the five-year plan, Ericksen said.

The remaining two stretches are in the right-of-way negotiation process, though with funding issues, Ericksen said it is hard to timeline when the whole thing will be completed. CEG

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