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Hwy. 80 project delayed once again

REGION – If the issue didn’t have such enormous implications to the economic livelihood of an entire region, the latest news concerning U.S. Highway 80 construction might be deemed comical.

State government’s pledge to begin four-laning a portion of U.S. 80 in Marengo and Sumter counties later this year has been derailed, thanks to an unclear “environmental” problem.

Lou Watters, who works in the 8th Division office in Grove Hill for the Alabama Department of Transportation, said there have been “some right-of-way issues relating to an environmental report” that have not been resolved.

Watters did not elaborate on what those environmental issues are, but he indicated they are not considered extensive problems.

“We got an environmental document returned from the Federal Highway Administration, and they had a couple of questions,” Watters said. “Those questions may have already been addressed, but that’s going to delay the project.”

Earlier this year, ALDOT officials said bids would be let in November for the four-laning of U.S. 80 from State Road 28 in Marengo County to State Road 28 in Sumter County. That first phase of four-laning would cross the Rooster Bridge over the Tombigbee River.

According to Watters, construction has now been delayed by three months.

“We’re looking at letting the bids in February 2005,” he said.

Over the past 50 years, discussion about the four-laning of U.S. 80 has rumbled from West Alabama and the Black Belt into Montgomery. State politicians, including Gov. Bob Riley and former Gov. Don Siegelman, have pledged to begin work to widen U.S. 80 in Perry, Marengo and Sumter counties. To this day, no work has been done to expand the roadway.

In a recent column that appeared in The Times, State Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said ALDOT Director Joe McInnes informed a delegation of community leaders that the project had been delayed. Watters confirmed the exact date and reasons for the delay.

The declaration of February 2005 as the beginning of the highway expansion hardly translates into a sure thing.

Earlier this year, a miscommunication among ALDOT officials sent the city of Demopolis reeling for answers.

McInnes personally called Demopolis City Attorney Rick Manley to inform him that construction on U.S. 80 would begin this year. Soon after that phone call, an ALDOT engineer wrote a letter to the city informing Manley and Mayor Austin Caldwell that the project was, in fact, scheduled for 2005.

It didn’t take long before ALDOT officials came back and changed the date of construction yet again. This time, the project was expedited and would begin in November of this year.

In a phone interview earlier this year, McInnes told The Times that he and Riley understood the concern about U.S. 80.

“We know how important [this project] is to the people of Demopolis, and it’s an important project for both Governor Riley and for me,” he said.

At the time, McInnes said a funding crunch in Washington, D.C., was to blame for a delay in highway work. Now, an undefined environmental issue along the rights-of-way has forced expansion of U.S. 80 to hit another dead-end.

Meanwhile, Watters said he is unclear what steps will be taken to four-lane U.S. 80 across the Tombigbee River.

Last year, Division Engineer Jerry Holt said there were concerns that already constructed beams (or piers) in the river would not meet modern-day specifications for a federal highway. Later, Holt said the piers had been studied and bridge engineers would find a way to make those piers work.

On Tuesday, Watters could not convincingly say whether or not new piers will need to be constructed for the first phase of the U.S. 80 expansion.

“That’s something they’re working on in the Bridge Bureau in Montgomery,” Watters said. “They’ll determine the most economic way to do that.”

The current piers in the Tombigbee River were constructed at the same time the Rooster Bridge opened in anticipation of an eventual U.S. 80 expansion. Whether or not they can be used for the highway expansion is of utter importance to the timeliness of the project. If ALDOT is forced to construct new piers in the Tombigbee River, the first phase of work would take much longer to complete, and the price tag would further increase state government’s hesitancy to complete the project.

As for now, that expansion has been delayed to February 2005. Then again, the project has been delayed since the early 1960s, when state government first discussed widening a 22-mile section of U.S. 80 that would open West Alabama and the Black Belt to the rest of the nation.