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W. S. Newell Begins Work on Much-Maligned U.S. 98 Job

Mon September 11, 2006 - Southeast Edition
Beverly B. Nichols

With the stroke of a pen, Alabama Gov. Robert Riley ended a years-long battle over the relocation of a segment of U.S. 98 and allowed construction to begin.

“Within 30 days [of his signature], W. S. Newell Inc. of Montgomery will start construction on an 8-mile-long stretch of new road to replace a section of U. S. 98,” said Tony Harris, spokesman of the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT).

The project will start at the Mississippi state line and end at Glenwood Road in Mobile.

In June, W. S. Newell won the contract for the construction of the first phase of this three-part project with a bid of $21 million. Its crews will build the bridges, grade and build the base for the selected route. Bids for finishing and paving the roadway have not yet been solicited.

Asked if the problems that have beset ALDOT over this construction had been addressed, Harris gave a definitive “yes,” adding “all the environmental hazards have been removed.”

Ronnie Porioux, district engineer of ALDOT in the Mobile office, agreed that the project’s dissenters have been satisfied. He said the road will be built principally with U. S. government funds with ALDOT contributing some $3 million more in engineering costs.

The awarding of the contract marks the end of several years of conflict and negotiations involving ALDOT, the Mobile Water and Sewer System (MAWSS), Mobile Bay Watch, the Alabama Rivers Alliance, Mobile Baykeeper and others over concerns about the location of the new route, which was selected by ALDOT in the late 1990s.

While debate circled around the project, most parties involved admitted there needed to be some sort of road improvement. This stretch of U.S. 98 had been built years before and is the only part of the highway between Mobile and Hattiesburg that is only two-lanes wide. Approximately 22,000 vehicles per day drive on it, 25 percent of which are trucks. The scene of many accidents, it’s been morbidly christened “Bloody 98.” The group Blue Mountain recorded a song by that title about the road.

The new route was chosen several years ago over three others that ALDOT had considered. The controversy that flared over its selection was to occupy everyone until this past June.

Several issues were at stake. ALDOT worried that any delays could jeopardize the federal funding if it were offered before a clear go-ahead existed. While loss of funding was a genuine concern, the environmentalists’ objections easily took center stage.

Because the new route cut across six streams that feed into Big Creek Lake — the single source of drinking water for 250,000 residents of the Mobile area — possible contamination of the water supply by run-offs, sedimentation and other construction fall-out was of concern. Opponents felt ALDOT’s studies on the environmental effects of this route had not been adequately addressed. Other concerns included violation of wetlands and an endangered species habitat.

The first legal confrontation was filed in 2001 by the Mobile Water and Sewer System (MAWSS). It challenged ALDOT’s claim that its preliminary environmental study had indicated no significant problems with the route.

As reported in a Mobile Bay Monthly article, Malcolm Steeves, director of MAWSS, believed that danger to the watershed might occur as anticipated development of the area followed the roadway.

In 200l, a compromise group including ALDOT, MAWSS, the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, the Mobile County Commission and a delegation of local legislators drafted a comprehensive bill regarding this issue. It includes subdivision regulations that prohibited dirt roads, provisions for run-offs from bridges, mandatory water retention basins and other protections. Known as the Transportation Funding Coalition, this group’s work has been heralded by many as a major victory toward the road’s construction.

Time marched on until February 2005, when the environmentalists had their day in court. Mobile Bay Watch and other groups had filed a suit asking that ALDOT be required to make a complete Environmental Impact Study that can be required before federal funds are used for roads. Casi Calloway, who heads Bay Watch, had long been active in publicizing the group’s opposition to the route.

Because such a study generally takes a year or more, ALDOT’s position had been, and remained, firm. Time was of the essence and a study, at such a late date, could jeopardize the entire project.

This suit was settled through negotiations. If the restrictions on construction that had been put in place were not being followed, the case could be reopened. In addition, the highway department promised more public input and better environmental assessments on future projects.

Calloway said she and her agency were “comfortable” with the requirements that have been put in place.

Officials at W. S. Newell were not available for comment. CEG

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