“The existing roadway was failing, there were too many median crossovers, and the high traffic volume brought a need for increased capacity,” says Luke McMahen, Project Engineer with Michael Baker International of Ridgeland, Mississippi, the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) Construction Engineering and Inspection consultant and lead design consultant.
Improving safety also was a priority for the department, adds Brian Ratliff, Chief Engineer for MDOT. “This is such a heavily traveled highway with minimal space, so it made sense to widen and enhance the roadway throughout the area,” Ratliff says.
An average of 51,000 daily vehicles drive on U.S. 49 in Richmond and 34,000 vehicles per day in Florence. Built more than 60 years ago, U.S. 49 carries significant truck traffic in the heavily commercial area with churches, stores, restaurants, and other businesses.
U.S. 49 is one of the busiest roadways in the state. MDOT conducted a traffic study in 1999, which predicted continued growth in the area as communities built their business centers around the route. The department conducted a 10-year environmental study and designed the complex project. Construction lasted from 2017 to 2022.
“We understand the completion of this project has been a long time coming,” said Central Transportation Commissioner Willie Simmons, in a statement. “Once complete, the entire state will benefit from this critical infrastructure improvement project for decades to come.”
The route serves as a primary arterial from the state capital of Jackson to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. U.S. 49 also serves as a key component of the state’s hurricane evacuation plan, but the concrete had deteriorated over the years and needed to be replaced.
MDOT was able to finish the work without completely shutting down U.S. 49.
To additionally improve safety, MDOT added Reduced Conflict U-Turns (RCUTs). Rather than left turns off side roads, drivers turn right and then make a U-turn at the designated location. A North Carolina State University study found RCUTs result in 46 percent fewer reported crashes and 63 percent fewer personal injury crashes.
The project had limited right of way and multiple stream crossings. Crews extended existing drainage structures to ensure water leaving the project was as clean as when it entered, McMahen says.
The project was divided into four phases. Yates removed the old concrete and recycled it. Then crews built an inside lane to carry traffic during construction. That lane became part of the final configuration.
MDOT required the contractor to maintain two lanes of traffic in each direction during the day. This required several traffic swaps.
“We had to close all of the crossovers on the project at one point due to having a very narrow median with nowhere for cars to store,” Ratliff says. “This was not popular with businesses, but it kept traffic moving and reduced the chances for crashes.”
McMahen adds that “the contractor did an excellent job of setting these up correctly for the traveling public to know which lanes to be in. We also had a helping hand from MDOT Public Affairs keeping the public informed about all of the traffic swaps and lane closures on a daily basis through the website and social media.”
Heavy rains between 2018 and 2020, presented some challenges for the team. The rain left the ground more saturated than expected and presented utility relocation and soil issues. Ice storms also adversely affected the schedule. The project was initially scheduled for completion late last year. Crews worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week for four years – taking off only on Thanksgiving and Christmas to finish the project.
Yates used GPS-controlled equipment for grading and Caterpillar rollers during paving. “This allowed the contractor to perform the work within MDOT tolerances easier than in the past having the operator guide the machine,” McMahen says.
The project received an award from MDOT two years in a row as the best project in the state for managing erosion control, Ratliff recalls.
The project is on track for completion in late summer 2022. Both McMahen and Ratliff praised the people involved with the project. McMahen says, “everyone wanted to produce the best possible project for the state.”
When challenges presented themselves, the team rose to meet them and finish the project.
“It took a small army if you think about all the planning, design, surveying, buying right of way, moving utilities, and then the actual construction and inspection personnel,” Ratliff says. “I think every one of them did a fabulous job and I am super proud of our MDOT family who did everything in their power to make this project successful.”
Photos courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Transportation