The Alabama Department of Transportation says it spent the last $11 million of federal stimulus money, originally allocated to grade the remaining three miles of the parkway, on other projects in the state, according to a department spokeswoman.
In 2009, $47 million of Congress' award to Alabama under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act was assigned by ALDOT to the parkway. When the bids for grading came in under that sum — at about $36 million — ALDOT spent the remainder of the money on other projects, said Rebecca Leigh White, spokeswoman for the department.
The money was never meant to cover the paving and it had to be spent within a certain deadline or it would have been lost, she said. The paving portion of the project is expected to come in at about $15 million to $20 million, White said.
But since the funding was used for other projects, it means that the parkway, which has already seen years of delays for lack of funding and other problems, will have to compete with other projects for funding from the recently passed two-year federal transportation bill.
“That’s a very important project that’s being looked at,” White said. “We’re very hopeful that it will be let in the year 2013.”
The problem is that ALDOT’s federal funding has not increased, but the cost of construction has, White said. Although the grading and bridge work on the unfinished portion of the parkway is scheduled to be completed sometime around the first of the year, a contract to pave the new length of highway isn’t scheduled to be offered to contractors for bids through March 2013, White said. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be added at a later date, but at this time, she’s unsure when it will be advertised for bid, she said. ALDOT has already spent the $36 million in stimulus funding on the current grading project, White said.
DeJarvis Leonard, engineer for ALDOT’s Fourth Division, reiterated White’s comments.
“Based on the funds that we have available, we feel pretty confident that it will be let out in 2013,” Leonard said. “We’re hoping to let it earlier (in 2013).”
Local officials said they were lobbying for the parkway.
“(ALDOT) should give it 110 percent priority,” said state Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, who said he’d heard rumblings of the problem already. “This thing has drug around and drug around long enough.”
A long road
The Eastern Bypass, as the parkway is known to ALDOT, runs from Interstate 20 in Oxford as Leon Smith Parkway to Golden Springs Road in Anniston, where it becomes Veterans Memorial Parkway. Currently it continues to the intersection with Iron Mountain Road at McClellan, where it ends. ALDOT paid $112 million to complete the bypass to Iron Mountain Road. At that time the entire project was estimated to cost $160 million. But the parkway, on which many local officials and administrators have pinned their hopes for economic development, has seen its share of controversy.
It was first approved by Congress in 1998. Work began in 2001. In late 2003, the first section, from I-20 to Greenbrier Dear Road, opened to the public. From there the project languished for lack of funding. In 2009, the stimulus funding kickstarted the project. ALDOT hired Mississippi-based L&T Construction to do the grading for $29 million. But the project was delayed by environmental issues. The contract with Mississippi-based L&T Construction went into default and work stopped in January. In March, ALDOT hired W.G. Yates, also based in Mississippi, to finish the grading.
The grading, bridges and drainage work should be finished about the end of the year, said Shannon Jones, district manager for ALDOT. However, the delay caused by L&T’s dismissal has pushed the completion date back a year, to late 2014, Jones said. If the project isn’t let out for bid until late 2013, that could push the finish date past 2014, Leonard said. That’s because the paving will take 15 to 18 months, once the contractor gets started, he said.
Robin Scott, executive director of the McClellan Development Authority which is charged with redeveloping the former military fort, said the delay shouldn’t impact its mission. Although the finished parkway would give the authority another tool in marketing the property, Scott said, “The key was getting access to I-20. We already have that with Iron Mountain Road.”
The western part of McClellan will benefit from the access on Alabama 21 and U.S. 431, but at this point, Scott doesn’t think the later completion of the parkway will make or break any deals.
State Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, who represents Calhoun County in the Legislature’s upper chamber, said the project was extremely important to him and he believed ALDOT also gave it priority.
“I’m keeping on top of this,” Marsh said. “I will do all I can to work with ALDOT to see this project done as soon as possible.”
Anniston Mayor Vaughn Stewart expressed much the same sentiment, noting how close the project is to completion.
“I have been assured that this is the No. 1 project for our division,” Stewart said. “We’ll continue our lobbying and partnering” with the department.
One portion of the project that will soon open is Pelham Road.
Pelham Road, which once connected McClellan to Noble Street and Anniston’s downtown, should reopen around the first of the year, but it will now be a connector from U.S. 431.
The road, which spanned over U.S. 431 on an overpass, will now intersect with that highway, but end before connecting with Alabama 21. At the same time the Alabama 21 entrance to Summerall Plaza, the home of J&S Boots and Old Western Store and Mattresses & More, among others, will close. Shoppers will have to access the strip mall from a new entrance on the northern end of Pelham Road.
Bob Pope, owner of Summerall Plaza, said he believes the change will make it safer for shoppers who will no longer have to cross Alabama 21 without the benefit of a light.
“It’ll help not only the shopping center but also the educational building,” Pope said, referring to the Calhoun County Schools administration office.
Shannon Jones, district manager for Alabama Department of Transportation, said the footings for a new traffic light at the intersection of U.S. 431 and Pelham have already been poured. The light, along with right- and left-turn lanes, should keep traffic moving smoothly, Jones said.
Mike Fincher, director of safety and security for the Calhoun County school system, said the office’s Alabama 21 entrances have been closed for about a month and visitors are already entering from U.S. 431.
“In the end, it will be nice,” Fincher said.
The new Pelham Road heading north from 431 will lead exclusively to the shopping center on the left and the school board office on the right, Fincher said. A fence will block traffic from moving onto Alabama 21 from the old entrances, he added.
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star. Editor's note:This story has been modified in the third paragraph from its original version to clarify the decision-making process that directed federal stimulus money to the parkway project.