Much-needed repaving and road improvement projects have increased throughout the state in the past year using funding created by the Rebuild Alabama Act.
The act raised the state gas tax and the funds available for projects at the state and local levels.
The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) is responsible for resurfacing state and U.S. highways, no matter the town, city or county in which a road is located. These projects are completely paid for with state revenue and funding received from the federal government. Local governments are responsible for city streets and county roads.
David Kemp, preconstruction engineer for ALDOT’s west central region, said ALDOT selects resurfacing projects on an evaluation system, choosing projects where the need is greatest.
Kemp said the west central region includes 13 counties with multiple district offices and a regional office in Tuscaloosa. The region receives “about $43 million a year for routine maintenance resurfacing” of state and U.S. roads.
Funding for interstate highway improvements is handled by ALDOT’s central office maintenance bureau.
Gov. Kay Ivey proposed the Rebuild Alabama Act in February 2019 during a press conference in Maplesville, where an old bridge along a road that had been patched many times illustrated the need to improve roads and infrastructure. The Legislature approved the act that increased fuel taxes by 6 cents per gallon in 2019, 2 cents in 2020 and 2 cents in 2021. After 2023, increases will be determined every other year based on how much the cost of construction changes.
Cities and counties receive a portion of the taxes. Chilton County, for example, receives about $2.5 million each fiscal year from gas taxes, including the new Rebuild Alabama portion.
Repaving roads is a major part of the Chilton County Road Department budget each year, with road traffic determining funding priorities.
“We have 44 major (road traffic) collectors in the county, and those will handle the vast majority of the traffic on a daily basis,” said Tony Wearren, engineer for Chilton County. “So we are looking to get those in the best possible shape, then look at the minor collectors, then come on down to the unclassified rural roads.”
This means money is typically spent where it will affect the most people. However, the length of time since a road has been repaved and the overall condition are also factors.
“The county just went through a $5 million resurfacing program that did 34 miles of roads,” Wearren said. “It works out to be $150,000 a mile to resurface a road.”
Paving is costly because asphalt, which is petroleum-based, is expensive, and the projects require large crews. Roads that require more leveling cost even more.
Potholes are often patched until there is enough funding to repave the road.
“Our job is to keep the road safe, and while patching is making the road sometimes bumpy, that is still better than hitting a pothole,” Wearren said.
For specific projects, local governments can apply for Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program (ATRIP) II funds and grants created by the Rebuild Alabama Act.
ATRIP-II funds are only for improvements for the intersections of state and local roads. Many of the projects funded for 2020 dealt with adding turn lanes.
The competitive Rebuild Alabama grant program created an opportunity for counties to be awarded $250,000 per grant.
Sumter County received one of the grants this year for a bridge project.
Anthony Crear, Sumter County engineer, said replacing the bridge is important because without it, residents would have to take a detour through Mississippi.
The county already had plans that could be adjusted. Crear said because the project could be completed within a one-year state deadline helped the county secure the grant.
Grant terms are specific. Wearren said they will not fund paving a dirt road.
Increased funding will also help interstate highway projects.
In determining where a project is needed on an interstate, ALDOT looks at the “traffic volume, accident history, complaints,” Kemp said.
ALDOT interstate projects are mostly resurfacing. However, improvements to traffic flow are sometimes needed.
In Chilton County, one project will raise three bridges that go over Interstate 65 as it runs through Clanton. The project will increase the minimum vertical clearance and allow more oversized loads to stay on Interstate 65 rather than having to take an alternate route.
“That is extremely important because of the freight network that goes up and down the interstate,” Kemp said.
One solution to improve traffic flow at intersections is putting in a roundabout.
“Those are set up usually with yield signs, and everybody goes to the right and goes around the circle until you get ready to get out,” Kemp said.
He said a roundabout “is a lot more efficient than a traffic signal.”
Traffic models are used in the study phase to ensure a roundabout can handle the traffic volume at a particular intersection, Kemp said.
In the ALDOT west central region, a roundabout has been put in on State Route 5 in Brent in Bibb County.
“It is working very well,” Kemp said. “It was a four-way stop, but the roundabout functions well.”
The roundabouts are made large enough that tractor-trailers can go through.
A roundabout is also planned for Interstate 65 exit 208 in Clanton, where the on and off ramps intersect with a local road.
Recent Interstate 65 projects south of Birmingham have included adding a third lane in each direction.
How long it takes to complete a road project once it begins depends on the weather (rain or cold) and the time required to get materials.
“We just ask for patience, and pay attention when you are in a work zone,” Kemp said.
To create additional funding for local road projects, many counties have designated a portion of sales tax specifically for roads. Sales tax has created an additional $1 million for Chilton County’s 600 miles of roads.
This story, written by Joyanna Love, is part of a program funded by the Alabama Power Foundation and administered by the Alabama Press Association Journalism Foundation to support journalists who have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.