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Roadwork Begins on I-20’s ’Death Valley’

Tue February 01, 2005 - Southeast Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

TALLADEGA, AL (AP) Several years ago, the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) began a construction project estimated to cost more than $100 million before it is complete and spanning more than 26 mi. of Interstate 20.

“Death Valley” has been a perilous stretch of interstate for many years, and high-speed wrecks claimed many lives. The need for improved safety has been apparent, and the current construction addresses the myriad of problems in different ways.

First was the narrow median that barely separated oncoming traffic.

“Really there were two main focuses,” ALDOT District Engineer Gary Smith said. “The barrier wall, if you had to choose, was the main one. Putting a positive divider between the traffic to make it impossible to cross the median, and eliminating head on collisions was very important. Making this stretch safer was the number one priority in my book.”

Another problem: more traffic between Birmingham and Atlanta.

“The traffic volumes had exceeded what a four-lane interstate should carry, and it needed to be expanded to six lanes,” ALDOT division engineer J.F. Horsley said. “In order to do that, we elected to widen inside and put in the barrier wall, which is a real safety feature. It increased capacity and gave us the safety feature of a barrier wall.”

So far those efforts seem to be paying off.

“We know we’ve had a significant decrease in fatalities and serious injuries since the wall was built just between 2003 and 2004,” state trooper spokesman Sgt. Tim Sartain said. “We want to continue to reduce the possibilities of serious injuries and fatality crashes.”

According to Sartain, in 2003 there were 521 wrecks on I-20 in St. Clair County resulting in 120 injuries and seven fatalities. In 2004, there were 622 wrecks resulting in 114 injuries and two fatalities.

“We had an increase in the total number of wrecks on the whole project, but we’ve had a significant decrease in the number of serious injuries and fatalities,” Sartain said.

“We know there were a significant number of high-speed crashes where people were losing control and crossing the median,” he said.

“When you start talking about vehicles crossing and impact speeds you may still have one vehicle traveling at 70, 80 or 90 mph in one direction, and another crossing the median doing 60 to 70. You could very easily have impact speeds of 130 to 150 mph combined impact speed,” he said.

In addition to the construction, state troopers also have increased their presence in the area through the construction zones, and the speed limit has been reduced from 70 mph to 55 mph in the same region.

“When you put the barrier wall up and increase speed enforcement in the area, you take down the high speeds,” Sartain said. “The barrier wall prevents people from going across the median and crashing head-on into vehicles.”

Besides the safety issues and traffic congestion there also were some other reasons the new interstate will be an improvement.

“The roughness of I-20 on the concrete paving section from Eden to the Coosa River Bridge was an area I’ve gotten complaints about for years,” Smith said. “We also spend a lot of time maintaining it, trying to keep it smooth and repair the broken slabs. That’s been a maintenance headache on top of the property damage, the lives lost and the injuries suffered there.”

“I don’t know that any of this was due to the roadway at all, except there was more traffic than it could handle,” he said.

The construction has already produced a price tag of more than $80 million in contracts and is still several years — and several contracts — from completion. There are two projects currently under construction in St. Clair County. One is running from U.S. 78 to just east of the U.S. 231 interchange. APAC Southeast from Birmingham, AL, is the lead contractor for this part of the project.

The other, led by Good Hope Construction, Good Hope, AL, starts east of U.S. 231 and runs to the Coosa River Bridge.

Smith said both contractors are turning the existing concrete pavement into rubble, installing a median barrier and adding a new lane in the median in their respective stretches of highway.

The first project is expected to near completion this summer, and the second project is scheduled to wrap up sometime early next year, Horsley said.

There also are three other projects in the early planning phases, including a continued widening project along a seven-mile stretch between the Brompton exit and U.S. 78 in Eden, redesigning the U.S. 231 interchange in Pell City and widening the bridge, and rebuilding the Coosa River Bridge.

“We’re about as close to on schedule as any project we’ve ever had,” Horsley said, adding the continuing projects are all based on one thing. “It’s all money. It’s finding the funds. Those funds are competitive statewide. There’s a limited amount of money and it has to be prioritized so the entire state has to be looked at.

“If we had unlimited money we would fix everything as safe as we could,” he said.

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