Ross Clark Circle widening

Midsouth Paving Inc. out of Birmingham is handling the current phase of the Ross Clark Circle expansion project.

When a road can no longer accommodate the traffic travelling on it, it’s time for an upgrade.

“You can only do so much with traffic signals and traffic signal timing to try to move traffic,” Dothan Public Works Director Charles Metzger said. “At some point you’ve got to do some widening and some access management.”

It can be a long process. Metzger said the first study on Ross Clark Circle was done in 1990, but a lack of support locally – including opposition to overpasses and other things – delayed efforts to make improvements.

Construction finally began in 2015, when the Alabama Department of Transportation began expanding Ross Clark Circle to six lanes from Fortner Street to Bauman Drive.

A project to widen Ross Clark Circle from Bauman to North Cherokee Avenue was split into smaller phases in late 2018 after the sole bid came in at $61.7 million – about $18 million more than state estimates and designated federal funding.

Last month, ALDOT started adding lanes from Bauman Drive to south of the West Main Street intersection.

Construction on a major thoroughfare can be hard on businesses and motorists.

“It’s going to be rough,” Metzger said. “There are going to be a lot of delays and issues. They’ll probably try to work some at night as best they can, but it’s going to be a long, drawn-out mess over there.”

The city’s project to widen, realign, and extend Honeysuckle Road has its own challenges.

In October 2016, the city hired Gresham Smith and Partners to conduct a study on how to improve Honeysuckle Road and some related thoroughfares.

In 2017, the firm presented a three-phase approach that suggested expanding the northern section of the road to five lanes, reconfiguring a section of the southern end and then extending the roadway from Park Avenue to the Taylor Road-Campbellton Highway intersection.

Major road projects are done in steps. A need is determined, and then funding has to be found. Preliminary engineering and design work is done. Public hearings are held and any needed right of way is acquired. The project is advertised for bids and the winning contractor begins construction.

The need for some projects is apparent. Metzger said if there is an existing two-lane roadway in a growing area with traffic volumes exceeding 10,000 to 15,000 cars a day, problems start to develop.

Citizen complaints, delays, and wrecks that are happening because of the lack of turn lanes and other components start the process to determine what changes need to be made.

Metzger said it then becomes about what to do. Are just turn lanes needed, or does the road need to be widened and more through lanes added to increase capacity?

“If it’s an existing road, then you just go straight to kind of designing the widening or whatever you’re going to do,” Metzger said. “If it’s a new piece of roadway, then you’re going from a corridor study trying to look at the best route.”

Public hearings are often part of the process, especially if a project involves state or federal money.

Metzger said probably 10 percent of any project’s cost is a design fee and another 10 percent is an inspection fee as the work is being done.

“With Honeysuckle, it’s looking like a 100 percent city-funded project, but we are making sure we follow all the guidelines as far as federal guidelines and state guidelines so that if we do have a chance to get some of their funds for the project we won’t have any issues because we follow all of their requirements,” Metzger said.

Once hearings are held and the project is defined, right of way is acquired. Metzger said it can be a long process if property owners do not accept the offers that are made and acquisitions turn into condemnation proceedings where a judge decides a fair price.

“That can literally add a year easily to a project,” Metzger said.

Utilities are installed on new roads, but on existing roads some utilities have to be relocated. Metzger said there’s a tremendous amount of utilities on Honeysuckle between West Main and Fortner streets, from Alabama Power Company and gas to cable and internet companies, phone, water, sewer, and storm drainage.

During construction, contractors try to minimize the impact on businesses and residents. They handle driveway and parking issues and set up work zones and work hours to reduce the chance of problems.

The Honeysuckle project could cost $19 million. Metzger said trying to get support for that kind of expenditure is its own issue.

“You hope that people see the need and hopefully understand,” he said. “These kinds of projects aren’t as sexy as a park or things like that, but these are the things that get people to and from their homes every day to work, and safely, and reduce driver frustration.”

Metzger was new to Dothan in 1984 when the state and city identified more than 10,000 cars a day were traveling on a two-lane section of Westgate Parkway at Rock Creek not far from U.S. 231.

The road needed to be widened but some of the property owners opposed the project. Luckily there was a wide right-of-way already in place so the work could proceed without having to acquire much land.

That five-lane section now handles about 20,000 cars a day.

“If it was still trying to be a two-lane road, what a nightmare that would be,” Metzger said.

A similar capacity issue is happening on Honeysuckle, which aligns with Westgate Parkway at the West Main intersection. Traffic volumes between West Main and Fortner top 14,000 cars a day.

Metzger said traffic counts have easily doubled on some roads over the last 35 years.

“The traffic count at 84 West and the Circle was about 40,000 and now it’s 80,000-plus with the same number of lanes,” he said.

Metzger hopes the widening on Ross Clark Circle goes as well as the U.S. 231 project, which widened the highway from the traffic circle to just north of John D. Odom Road.

“Everybody thought that was going to be a bad project with access management and all that was done up there, but that six-lane has been a godsend to that area,” Metzger said.

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