One of the most heavily traveled corridors in Mississippi, U.S. Highway 49 in Rankin County, is receiving new pavement, two new bridges and two new lanes from the Department of Transportation to improve the driving experience.
“We are looking forward to a greatly improved and safer roadway once the project is completed,” says Melinda McGrath, P.E., Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT).
Highway 49 was built 60 years ago and the pavement had reached the end of its life. About 54,000 vehicles travel on the road each day.
“It’s one of the busiest roadways in the state of Mississippi,” says Brian Ratliff, P.E., District Engineer with the Mississippi DOT.
Restaurants, grocery stores, churches and other locally important businesses line Highway 49.
“The condition of the existing concrete was so bad, we could not physically maintain the roadway,” Ratliff says. “We needed to get in there and remove the concrete.”
The Mississippi DOT had often replaced sections of pavement, but it had gotten to the point it needed reconstruction.
“We really had no option but to completely rehab that roadway,” McGrath explains.
The U.S. Highway 49 Infrastructure Improvement Project will transform a congested and heavily traveled road with serious concrete pavement deterioration into a smooth sailing asphalt-paved road with an additional travel lane.
“The biggest need for transportation is a new limited access highway from Jackson to Hattiesburg to the coast, but unfortunately we don’t have the extra funds to address these types of capacity projects,” says Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall. “Instead, we are reconstructing Hwy 49, which carries that traffic now.”
Mississippi as with other states faces funding challenges. Roads require repairs and new capacity routes are needed, McGrath says. Rural routes, which are used to move agricultural products to market, are in desperate need of repair.
“Routes with the higher volumes of vehicular and freight traffic are taking a disproportionate amount of the money,” McGrath adds. “These routes are also where we have the highest volume of wrecks, and safety is MDOT’s number one priority.”
A Long Time Coming
Mississippi DOT began a traffic study to analyze solutions to traffic congestion on Hwy 49 in 1999. That report indicated the growth in the area would continue and the road would reach capacity within 20 years.
“The towns have built their commerce centers around Highway 49,” McGrath says. “We wanted to take the minimal amount of land, so we did not interrupt local economies. We also had to determine the best way to handle drainage.”
The department completed the environmental study and began design. Due to the complexity of the project and the densely populated commercial areas, this phase took 10 years. From 2007 to early 2017, final design was completed and utilities were relocated.
W.G. Yates Construction of Philadelphia, Mississippi, received the $150 million contract to rehabilitate the 8-mile stretch of Highway 49 and began work in November 2017, with completion set for winter 2021. Yates has successfully completed several projects for the Mississippi DOT.
“We feel we have a contractor who will give it all it’s got,” Ratliff says. “This is a complex project, with four different phases and challenges – limited right of way, weather, soil conditions and nighttime construction. But we have a good team to push through those issues.”
“Yates is experienced,” Hall says. “It’s a nationally recognized firm, and they know what they are doing. It’s good to have someone like that on the project. But they have a small-town attitude.”
At the end of 2018, crews were installing new drainage structures – box culverts and box bridges. The drainage was about 80 percent complete in December 2018. The through and right eastbound turn lanes at Harper Street in Richland were closed this fall for the drainage structures to be constructed.
Crews also are busy building two new concrete-beam bridges, on concrete piles. They will be wider and longer than the existing bridges. The new bridges will carry three lanes in each direction with 12-foot shoulders on the inside and outside.
“Construction on the drainage areas and bridges is going well,” Ratliff says.
Work has commenced on construction of a “temporary” inside lane on which traffic will be switched to allow for the reconstruction of the outer lanes. Without the temporary lane, McGrath estimates drivers could expect 20-mile delays. After all the work has been completed, the temporary lanes will become permanent, increasing the capacity of the road. The difference was paving 10 inches for a permanent structure as compared to 8 inches for a temporary road.
“There is not a lot of difference in the structure thickness for a temporary lane that carries 54,000 vehicles a day and has to perform for two years,” McGrath says. “It was a small cost to add the extra lane, and the traffic volumes support that.”
“This was the best use of taxpayer dollars,” Hall says.
Yates will recycle the concrete it removes and then will pave the rehabilitated road with asphalt, which works better with the clay soils in the area. The construction firm is running a safe project, Ratliff reports.
Work takes place driveway to driveway to allow access to all of the businesses along this busy retail corridor. That requires constructing in short sections, Ratliff says.
Additionally, the highway is highly traveled by trucks moving goods from the Port of Gulfport to interior destinations.
“We desperately needed to add lanes to this area,” Hall says.
Yates continued to work into December 2018. But likely will have to take a break during the winter of early 2019.
“Yates has done a really good job, and the feedback I am getting from the public is complementary,” Hall says. “It’s going extremely well, and I am pleased.”
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