City officials are hopeful that before the month of July is over, they can at long last open the roundabout in the Sweetwater business district for partial traffic.
It’s been an incredibly frustrating project that has tested the patience of all parties involved.
The goal of the road improvement project was to eliminate an awkward and confusing intersection of Huntsville Road and Royal Avenue. Engineers planning the project allowed 80 working days for completion, which didn’t include rain delays.
Unfortunately, there were many rainy days — more than 40. Those delays added nearly six weeks to the work schedule, and that doesn’t include the additional time needed for the ground to dry out enough to allow the work to continue.
To put it mildly, Mother Nature just refused to cooperate.
The weather wasn’t the only complication the project had to overcome.
When city officials announced the roundabout would be constructed, the initial plans called for one lane of traffic through the area to remain open, giving the public continued access to the businesses in the area.
That changed after the Alabama Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration sent consultants here to review the project. They decided in the interest of safety, all traffic lanes would have to be closed as the roundabout was being built.
The closing of streets took a huge toll on the businesses. After the barricades went up, many customers assumed those businesses just weren’t open any longer. Others quit coming to the area because of the lack of parking outside the barriers, and the difficulty of getting to the businesses once they parked. It was just more of an aggravation than they cared to endure.
And then the bottom dropped out, literally. A record rainfall in February, and the unexpected discovery of an old waterline and sewer line beneath the roadway, washed away any chance the project would be finished during the spring. Both utility lines had to be replaced, and new fill dirt compacted in the area before any paving could get started.
In hindsight it’s not fair to point accusatory fingers at the contractor, whose employees worked diligently on days when they could actually work. And conversations with the frustrated business owners indicate City Engineer Bill Batson did a yeoman’s job of keeping them updated on the progress, or lack thereof.
But the mismatch of coincidences does, perhaps, signal some areas that city officials could have handled better.
Once state and federal highway consultants ruled the streets must be closed, city officials should have put in motion a more aggressive communications campaign to help the Sweetwater district businesses.
When frustrated business owners began complaining openly three months into the project, city officials pointed out they had put signs on the barricades that stated the businesses were open. But business owners said the signs were attached to the lower rung of the barricades, and they were too small to be noticed unless a vehicle got very close to the barricades.
Also, the lack of significant traffic on the city’s social media sites did little to alert the community of the problems. In essence, the outreach efforts used failed because they were poorly implemented.
City officials could have deflected some criticism had they done a better job of keeping the public abreast of the project. The outspoken concerns of the business owners became the sparks that triggered stories that forced city leaders to discuss the problems. A more open, and more frequent, dialogue from city leaders would have been very helpful to the public at large.