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Alabama Drive Project Lingers On

Project was to have wrapped up this week, could last until October.

When Blair Thurman isn't driving down Alabama Drive chances are he is writing e-mails to the Town Council about Alabama Drive. "I write them almost daily," Thurman said. To say Thurman is upset about the conditions of the road would be an understatement. Fed up is more like it.

During the July 8 Herndon Town Council public hearing, Thurman took his message to the council directly. "The conditions are intolerable," he said. "I recognize that the curbing needs to be done first, but the contractor has very few workers. It's messing up our car's alignments."

Councilman John DeNoyer sympathized with Thurman. The conditions along Alabama Drive are "deplorable," DeNoyer said.

The Alabama Drive Road Improvement Project, as the town calls it, has been under way for a year. The first 12 months of the project have seen the completion of a new waterline installation, a sanitary sewer replacement and upgrades to the corridor's storm sewer system, project manager Sheri Porter said. According to the project's construction timeline, JSI Paving & Construction, the contractor, is supposed to begin roadway replacement work and base paving between Van Buren and Florida during July and August. Final surface paving, however, is not scheduled to begin until at least September.

For Thurman and many neighbors like him who each day have to brave the dusty pockmarked terrain that is Alabama Drive, it is not soon enough. "I don't know who the buck stops with, but someone needs to get the contractor to work."

Thurman understands that, given the snowy winter and monsoon-like spring, weather has been a problem and one of the causes of the project's slower-than-expected pace.

"THEY ARE CLEARLY BEHIND schedule," said Councilman Harlon Reece, after meeting with the town manager and the director of public works about the progress, or lack thereof, on Alabama Drive.

Thurman pins the blame on the contractor. "When you always take the low bid contractor, this is what is going to happen," he said, during a walking tour of his neighborhood.

Bob Boxer, the town's new public works director, acknowledged that the project was not where he would like to see it. "We are clearly a little behind schedule for several reasons, not the least of which is the weather," Boxer said, adding that the original duration was expected to take 15 months. "I expect to wrap the job up in two months which is probably about two or three months later than we thought."

The start date of the project was April 17, 2002 which means the original end date was supposed to be this week, July 17, 2003. Instead, Boxer is promising neighbors that the roadwork won't begin until Wednesday, July 16. "Now, what we are anticipating is late September, early October for final surface paving," he said, adding that the curb and gutter work should be complete this week.

NOT ALL RESIDENTS are as upset about the progress on one of the main east-west arteries in town. Elmer Hata lives near the corner of Alabama and Arkansas just down the street from the property proposed for a permanent Neighborhood Resource Center. "I've got other things to worry about besides the road," Hata said. "The road is going to be sweet, I'm not concerned about that. Some folks are just impatient because of all the dust. When it is all said and done, our property values will actually go up."

Reece agreed. "It's going to look great," he said, adding that he knew that was of little comfort to those who must traverse Alabama each day.

Thurman doesn't share Hata's laid-back optimism. With a hand on the for-sale sign in front of his townhouse, Thurman says the condition of Alabama Drive is driving down the cost of homes like his. "Who wants to buy a house after driving through that war zone?"

Thurman said he believes that the large Spanish-speaking population that live in the neighborhoods around Alabama Drive are not accustomed to voicing their concerns to the local authorities. Reece agreed, to a point. "There's an old saying that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. To be honest, I'm surprised that we haven't gotten more complaints than we have," Reece said. "To some extent that may be because we have some residents there that aren't plugged in enough, which is part of a larger problem.

"I would not like that we as a town would treat Alabama Drive any different than any other project."

Boxer said he sympathizes with the residents and that patience is appreciated. "The end is near, and that's a good thing."

BUT REECE AND THE COUNCIL understand that many residents are frustrated with the pace of the project. "We need to get moving on that because folks are getting frustrated to the point of anger," Reece said. "If we don't see action this week, then our public works director has to put pressure on the contractor, and he has."

Porter who is at the site everyday says she understands the neighbors' concerns, but she said, "It really has only been a year, so far." "In all of our discussions with the neighbors, we always projected 18 to 24 months. We are still on schedule."

"Generally speaking the project is on track as far as our overall timeline and we anticipate final paving in September," the project manager said. "On track as far as where we expected him to be and where we expected to be."

Reece expressed lukewarm enthusiasm for the contractor.

"The plain truth of the matter is — and the residents deserve the truth — in government you are often compelled to go with the lowest bidder or explain why you didn't," Reece admitted. "In this case, we got a fella' who, plain and simple just doesn't have enough resources and other jobs that people are screaming about, as well. He overextended."

Boxer didn't disagree. "By his own admission, he is a smaller contractor," the new public works director said. "It's a low bid job, as long as he is functioning within terms of contract."

Reece and Boxer both said that the town should reexamine the bidding process and the Alabama project to see if there are lessons to be served. "Sometimes the lowest bidder is not the most cost effective bidder," Reece added.

Boxer who began his job well into the Alabama Project tenure said that, with future projects, contractors could "sequence the work in a way that would lesson the impact on the traveling public."