Hwy. 55 four-lane bids opened

Published 11:42 pm Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Alabama Dept. of Transportation has opened bids for the four-laning of the last section of Hwy. 55 between Andalusia and I-65.

The project actually reroutes the highway, Speaker of the House Seth Hammett (D-Andalusia) said Tuesday afternoon.

“This is all new construction,” Hammett explained. “It begins where the Red Caboose is at the end of the current four-lane. The highway will go west of Georgiana and connect with Ala. Hwy. 106 at about Fred’s Department Store.”

The 4.66-mile project has been 10 years in the making.

“We’ve hit roadblock after roadblock,” Hammett said.

The first was opposition from some residents of Georgiana who live near the new highway route. Then came the matter of acquiring property from more than 60 landowners, one of whom ended up in court after he refused to be served notice of the project.

Then, property values were disputed in probate court, Hammett said. Then the entire project was halted for more than 18 months when the Alabama Department of Conservation’s Game and Fish division determined that the project might infringe upon the habitat of the Red Hills Salamander, a terrestrial salamander found in Crenshaw, Butler, Covington, Conecuh, and Monroe counties in Alabama.

“No Red Hill Salamanders were found in the construction area,” Hammett said. “I encouraged the DOT to continue the property portion of the project while the study was being done, but the federal regs did not allow it.”

The final hurdle came, he said, with CSX Railroad.

“They have an ongoing dispute with the federal highway administration about the amount of bond required when construction takes place across a railroad track,” Hammett said.

“Transportation Director Joe McInnes refused to agree to that amount.”

Hammett said McInnes believes the railroad is being unreasonable and he wanted the matter resolved.

“I agree with him in principle, but also wanted the project to be finished,” Hammett said.

The final piece of the highway puzzle fell into place when the Butler County Commission agreed to pay the additional bond amount to the railroad so that the project could move forward.

“In the six years he has been the director, Joe McInnes has successfully identified projects that were bottlenecks to larger projects and gotten them completed,” Hammett said. “In addition to this one, some examples are that he’s completed Hwy. 431, and finished Hwy. 280 from Birmingham to Auburn. He’s been a real pleasure to work with.”

The project is important for Andalusia, Hammett said, because interstate access is crucial to economic development success.

“It’s absolutely essential for us to improve all of our highways, and particularly those that provide access to the Interstate, if we’re going to stay in the economic development game in this area,” Hammett said.

Newell Construction of Hope Hull is the apparent low bidder on the project, Hammett said, adding that the company’s bid was $6.9 million. Construction is about to begin soon and should take 300 days.