Standing in front of the finished “bridge to nowhere” that motorists on Alabama Highway 157 have eyed — but never driven on — over the past three years, ALDOT’s Curtis Vincent had the understatement of the day. “It took a long time, but it's all coming together," said Vincent, North Region Engineer for the state highway department.
For local officials who’ve worked to line up funding for the remaining work to be done on the project, which will convert one of the area’s busiest stretches from two lanes to four, the years since the first phase was completed back in 2013 have felt long indeed — but Cullman mayor Woody Jacobs said no one ever lost faith that the project would eventually see the finish line.
“Teamwork was the key,” said Jacobs on Thursday, gathered with other officials and shareholders to break ground at the site that locals have come to refer to as the “bridge to nowhere.” “There are so many people involved, and all the stars aligned,” Jacobs added.
The bridge for the northbound roadway over Lake Catoma and the CSX railroad was finished seven years ago. But the absence of any adjustment to Alabama’s state highway funding forced ALDOT to prioritize maintaining its existing highway infrastructure over costly expansions to the state’s transportation network.
Things have changed with the arrival of a fresh infusion of funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development (BUILD) program, which awarded $14 million in federal funds to see the project, which will four-lane Highway 157 from U.S. Highway 31 to Alabama Highway 69, to completion. The money will be combined with additional state, local, and other federal funding to pay for the project, which has been awarded to Clanton-based Chilton Contractors, Inc at a bid price of $14,895,273.
Weather permitting, work is expected to begin on the project on Wednesday, Oct. 7, with plans to begin on the two-lane northbound stretch. The work will also fold in drainage, grading, paving, traffic signaling, and multi-use pathways in addition to widening the roadway. As the project progresses, the existing two-way road will eventually serve as the future southbound roadway.
“This infrastructure project is one of the most highly anticipated in Cullman’s recent history,” said Alabama Sen. Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman) at Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony, held at the completed bridge near Lake Catoma.
“Without adequate funding for transportation projects, such as the federal BUILD grant and Rebuild Alabama, this would not be possible. I am proud to say that because of this funding, what was once a dream is now a reality. The teamwork displayed to connect this final link of Alabama 157 is not just an achievement for Cullman County, but for all North Alabama.”
Gudger was joined by the rest of the Cullman area’s legislative delegation at the ceremony, with Rep. Randall Shedd (R-Fairview), Corey Harbison (R-Good Hope), and Scott Stadthagen (R-Hartselle) also in attendance. Shedd said finishing the 157 project had “been my number one legislative priority,” citing a “fruitful” working relationship with Gudger and state officials as key in restarting the work. “I appreciate Governor Ivey and ALDOT Director John Cooper’s approval, and our congressional delegation for helping to secure this rare and substantial grant,” he said.
Once the project gets underway, motorists will be asked to accommodate construction crews as they block out safe areas around their workspace. While only minor effects on traffic over the existing roadway are anticipated during initial stages, the two-year project may at times call for lane closures, as well as redirected traffic guided by flag signals or pilot cars. Motorists are asked to be alert and on standby to reduce their speed and drive with caution.
Dale Greer, director of the Cullman Economic Development Agency, said the federal BUILD grant represents one of the largest single infrastructure awards ever to land in the Cullman area.
“In December of 2018, the City of Cullman saw an opportunity and committed $1 million in local matching funds and applied for a $14 million United States Department of Transportation BUILD grant,” he told the assembled crowd on Thursday. “Over 800 applications were received from throughout the U.S., with 92 awarded — two in Alabama, out of only 58 highway projects across America. The $14 million approved grant ranks as one of the largest in our history.”
Surveys have revealed that the section of Highway 157 between Highway 31 and Highway 69 is one of the busiest in Cullman County, with daily traffic counts in excess of 16,500 vehicles. “It is a critical east–west artery across the state,” said Greer, noting its vital access not only to Cullman Regional hospital, but also to industries like Yutaka and Royal Technologies near the road’s southern terminus.