Fred Kelly has lived near U.S. Highway 98 in Mobile County for decades. At least three times a day, he hears the emergency services sirens up the hill from his house heading to yet another wreck on the busy two-lane highway.
“People get hurt on that highway every day,” Kelly said. “Many people just don’t realize how hard it is for people who have to go this way every day.”
Highway 98, a major east-west, two-lane route in the county that is frequently traveled by commercial vehicles, local residents and beachgoers on their way to Interstate 10 and the Alabama Gulf Coast, is dubbed “Bloody 98” for its many severe traffic accidents. Wrecks on this curvy highway can back up traffic more than 10 miles.
“People who know just don’t get onto 98 to get home,” said State Sen. Jack Williams (R-Wilmer). “People will go 20 miles out of their way, down dirt roads or however they can to avoid it. What ought to be a 20-minute drive for people who live in Mississippi but work in Mobile and vice versa is an hour or more.”
State Rep. Chris Pringle (R-Mobile) agreed.
“It’s one of the most dangerous highways in the state,” he stated. “Anything would be an improvement.”
Work began in 2001 to build a new four-lane extension of U.S. 98, but environmental litigation in 2008 and other setbacks took the project off the front burner. Plans were redesigned, and more right-of-way purchased so that the project would be more environmentally sensitive.
“It’s been on the radar for a long time,” said Mobile County Commission President Connie Hudson, whose western-area district includes 98. “Our concerns are for our constituents who have to travel this road daily. It is dangerous.”
But now, work has started back in earnest, thanks to a $40 million funding windfall from the 2016 BP oil spill settlement. In 2017, ALDOT restarted work on the U.S. 98/SR-158 extension project, broken into several segments so that local contractors can participate in the construction as funding is available. The $160 million, 12-mile SR 158 extension will connect with the new U.S. 98 west of Mobile. Environmental concerns are being addressed in several ways.
The ultimate goal is to have a new two-lane road, so far dubbed the new 98, from the Mississippi state line to Schillinger Road. It will run parallel to the “old” 98, which still will be in operation, but is undergoing safety improvements, including center lane rumble strips.
“We’re hoping at least a half of the traffic on 98 will move onto the new road,” Williams said. “The new 98 won’t have stoplights, so we’re hoping more trucks will use it.”
Since 2017, steps underway include:
September 2017: An eastbound bridge extension project begins on U.S. 98 over Big Creek Lake. The $5.5 million project finished in fall 2018.
December 2018: A 2.7-mile project begins east of Glenwood Road to west of SR 217 (Lott Road) in Semmes. It should be finished by fall 2021.
April 2018: Work begins on the SR-158 extension, a 1.5-mile project that starts east of Lott Road to the junction of Schillinger Road in Semmes. It also includes building two more bridges. It should be finished in fall 2019.
The two lanes on the new 98 are anticipated to be complete by 2022, which will complete the link from Mississippi to Interstate 65. The new 98 will have enough room on either side to expand to four lanes should funding become available.
“I’d like to eventually see both roads four-laned for safety,” Hudson said. “We’re just excited and happy it’s active and we look forward to having the new road.”
Kelly, who serves on an ALDOT community outreach committee that informs residents of the progress, is pleased.
“It should have been done years ago … but ALDOT is doing the best they can with the money they have,” he said.
ALDOT plans to let four more projects, including construction of a Lott Road overpass, a bridge on Glenwood Road, construction of a bridge on Wilmer-Georgetown Road over U.S. 98, and paving the original U.S. 98 project from the Mississippi line to east of Glenwood Road. The entire project is expected to finish in about six years.
Lori Chandler Pruitt is a journalist whose contribution is made possible by a grant from the Alabama Alliance for Infrastructure