U.S. 80 4-lane work out for bid

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 10, 2005

A struggle that began almost 50 years may soon be put to rest. Since the late 1950’s citizens and representatives at all levels have lobbied for the conversion of all U.S. Highway 80 to four lanes. In most other areas of the state they were successful. However, in West Alabama, people have continued to wait.

Monday it was announced by Alabama Department of Transportation Director Joe McInnis that bids would soon be taken for phase one of a three-phase plan to expand the highway from Demopolis to Highway 28.

McInnis said the projects first big step will come in less than a month.

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“The letting date will be March 1,” McInnis said. “From there they will actually have two phases to this project.”

McInnis said the first step will deal with water and how they plan to deal with it.

“First it starts with a grade and drain,” McInnis said. “During that period we will work on putting a bridge across the river and putting the proper drainage in.”

McInnis said once the proper drainage is in place work will begin on the road itself.

“The next phase is the base and pave phase,” McInnis said. “In that project we go back in and finish it up. It is hard to put an estimate on how long it will take because there are two pieces to the project.”

The news is good for everyone, but it is especially satisfying for those who have battled from the very start. For years they have lived under the frustration of being left out. There are only about 29 miles of Highway 80 that are not paved. Almost all of them are in Alabama and much of that falls in Marengo and Sumter County. The number is even more significant when you consider the road runs across the entire country from Savannah to San Diego.

Jamie Wallace, former editor of the Selma Times Journal, was there when the talks began. He has seen the struggle and is happy to see their hard work come to a head.

“It was about 1958 when I was at the first meeting,” Wallace said. “It was all ALDOT people and county and city representatives.”

Wallace said Highway 80 has been a huge part of the states history and it was historic events that led to the delay in some of the paving.

“There were several areas around Selma that were not four-laned in the 60’s,” Wallace said. “That was part of George Wallace’s argument not to let people march. He said it was a major East to West highway and it was too dangerous. He said there was so much traffic it would be dangerous to march there and they also didn’t want to stop traffic for three days.”

However, when the marches were complete four-laning began in most of the area between Selma and Montgomery. Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s Highway 80 was vastly expanded. But on the other side of Demopolis the work ceased and was placed as an after thought by the state until recently. Wallace said the project was likely put on the back burner because of a lack of pull in Montgomery.

“There just wasn’t a willingness to put money into the project,” Wallace said. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease and there were other areas with a higher populations and more political clout.”

The project seemingly disappeared as a priority. However, locally, it continued to create a stir.

Longtime Marengo County Commission Chairman Freddie Armstead is one of many who have watched in suspense to see when the project would finally take off. Armstead said the news that bids would soon be taken was great for everyone.

“If we get that done it will be a great improvement to our area,” Armstead said. “It would greatly improve the transportation through the area and the business we could bring in. It will be great to finally get it done and start receiving bids.”

Armstead is one of many frustrated local leaders who have seen the project jump from five-year plan to five-year plan. Armstead said the plans have added up to three decades of waiting.

“We have been on five year plans, five year plans and more five year plans until I think it has added up to about 30 now,” Armstead said. “The sooner they can open bids the better. This is going to be very promising for us.”

Demopolis City Councilmember Thomas Moore has also watched as the project was delayed. Moore said the news that things were coming together was a huge relief.

“I think this is wonderful news,” Moore said. “I have been saying for four years this was a do-able project in the overall context and the amount of money it would take. We can’t even begin to measure the benefits this will bring us.”

There are several reasons for the excitement behind the news. The biggest comes with the possibilities the completion will bring.

Jay Shows, Executive Director of the Demopolis Area Chamber of Commerce, said the project may take time, but it will have a positive impact on the economy.

“Any move toward the completion of Highway 80 will be a welcome one,” Shows said. “This will be something we will continue to push and we look forward to the expansion.”

Demopolis businessman Bill Mackey, who owns several properties on Highway 80, said he is extremely excited about the future of Demopolis after the project.

“I think it is going to be wonderful,” Mackey said. “It is going to be great for the economy of Demopolis. I wish that they were able to start tomorrow. It is going to be wonderful for everybody.”

For now, the cost and time frame for the project are still up in the air. More will be revealed about the construction when the bid is awarded and the situation is evaluated.