JACKSON, Miss. (AP) At first glance, the Mississippi Highway 9 reconstruction under way in Northeast Mississippi is simply a road improvement project supporting the new Toyota automobile plant at Blue Springs.
The $90-million four-laning/improvement project was in the works before Toyota ever committed to building its plant in Mississippi.
The project is expected to not only serve Toyota, but also serve other industries in the area, and, just as important, enhance public safety.
In addition, some of the fast-track pre-construction components of the project represent firsts for the state, and could be incorporated into other road-building projects in the future.
“This project predates Toyota,” said Randy Kelley, who heads the Three Rivers Planning and Development District and played a role in recruiting Toyota to Blue Springs. “The work has been the focus of MDOT for years now.”
MDOT listed the 10-mi. (16 km) stretch of the two-lane between Pontotoc and Sherman in its Vision 21 plan back in 2002 as an immediate priority. The roadway between Mississippi Highways 6 and 178 was already overburdened.
The twisting, undulating highway was a traffic and safety nightmare. With traffic counts projected to increase according to MDOT research, a new, four-lane highway was needed.
“It followed every hill and hollow, that’s for sure,” Kelley said. “You could leave Pontotoc, drive for 30 minutes, and still not be in Sherman, a trip of maybe 14 miles.”
Highway 9 came under renewed focus when Toyota announced in February 2007 its selection of Blue Springs as the site of its newest automobile plant. With that, the state cranked up the project.
MDOT announced in 2008 that it had chosen its preferred route for the four-laning project. Everything seemed a “go.”
Then the economy tanked. Not only did this affect transportation funding, it put the construction of the Toyota plant, originally set to start production in late 2009 or early 2010, in limbo. Toyota announced in December 2008 that it was indefinitely postponing the proposed opening of the plant.
Then, in June 2010 Toyota contacted the state and said the plant was back on, with a proposed opening of this fall.
Suddenly, the Highway 9 project needed to get done, and quickly.
MDOT contacted the engineering firm Neel-Schaffer Inc., which MDOT chose as its pre-construction agent on the project. The largest Mississippi-based engineering firm, Neel-Schaffer, charged with managing the final design (roadway and bridge) as well as right of way (maps and deeds, appraisal, acquisitions/relocations, closing attorney and property management) and utilities relocation, said it could wrap up all of the pre-construction work in 12 months.
Robert Walker, senior vice president at Neel-Schaffer, said his firm put approximately 20 staffers on the project, but the work required a larger team effort and, importantly, fast-track design-build components.
For example, the state put in “early bird” incentives for property owners. If owners agreed to sell early, the state would offer a bonus.
The state also set up special escrow accounts for the landowners. This sped payments to the owners, allowing them to relocate more quickly.
The design process also was altered. Plans were only 60 percent complete when produced. This cut the time needed for the plans to be totally completed while giving contractors enough information on the proposed project to allow for bidding and to begin moving utilities.
Engineers said the new stretch of Highway 9 is designed to be much safer for the traveling public compared to the old roadway.
Bill Jamieson, MDOT district engineer, said to his knowledge the expedited right of way and partial-plan elements of the project were firsts in the State of Mississippi.
Northern Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert said these new fast-track components might not work for all future projects, but the Highway 9 process proves in his mind that they can not only speed up projects, but also save money.
The general contractor on the project is Eutaw Construction of Aberdeen, which won the bid last May. Work started on the highway in July.
MDOT gave the project 17 months for completion. Jamieson said the project was about 50 percent completed and well ahead of schedule.
In a statement, Eutaw president Thomas Elmore said the project includes “clearing and grubbing 650 acres, moving seven million cubic yards of dirt, construction of 11 bridges, laying 15,000 linear feet of pipe and paving 170,000 tons of asphalt.”