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Toyota plant brings Highway 9 to record completion

There was a theme at last week’s ribbon cutting for the new four-lane state Highway 9: Doing things under budget and in record time requires a public-private partnership in which everybody pulls on the same end of the rope.

It also doesn’t hurt if it’s Toyota that will be the highway’s main beneficiary.

The $87.5 million highway connects to U.S. Highway 278 at its southern end to the entrance to Magnolia Way, the access road to the Toyota plant, at its northern end. Former Gov. Haley Barbour made getting the highway built a priority in early 2007 shortly after Toyota made public its plans to locate in Mississippi. Before that, the project had been part of the Vision 21 highway program the Legislature passed in 2002 but had not completely funded.

The road was built specifically to help Toyota and its suppliers move goods quickly and easily to and from the Blue Springs facility, and to encourage future suppliers to locate in the vicinity. Highway 278 offers a four-lane connection to I-55 to the west. To the east, the new road offers direct access to U.S. Highway 78, whose four-lane portion is bookended by Memphis and Birmingham, Ala.

The new Highway 9 was built using Type 2-B construction, which means — unlike its old, two-lane counterpart — it will not offer much in the way of direct access for residential driveways, but is ideal for commercial access.

The 10-mile stretch of highway opened to traffic July 30; ground broke on the project July 15 of last year.

Aberdeen-based contractor Eutaw Construction Co. was offered financial incentives for its speedy completion. MDOT offered $50,000 per day, up to $5 million or 100 days, for each day the road’s completion was ahead of schedule, with December of this year targeted as the completion date. The $90 million in total funding for the new road was part of a $700 million bond bill lawmakers passed in 2010.

Barbour said last year at the highway’s groundbreaking that its build time would mark the “fastest completion of a significant highway” in MDOT’s history.

The 10-mile stretch of highway opened to traffic July 30; ground broke on the project July 15 of last year.

Normal build time for a 10-mile stretch of four-lane highway where road did not previously exist is between 14 and 17 years.

Highway 9 happened so quickly, Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert said after last week’s ribbon-cutting, because it sat in the eye of a perfect storm: It employed a relatively new construction strategy called design-build in which permitting, land acquisition, design and construction happens simultaneously. That and a combination of the money being in hand and Eutaw enjoying more control over the process than normal quickened the pace.

“We had the resources to do it, and that’s just not always the case,” Tagert said. “This project is somewhat unique.”

What makes it unique is its service to the mammoth Toyota plant that sits just off Highway 9’s northern tip. The facility started producing Corollas last fall and is responsible for a total job-creation number that reaches north of 4,000 once suppliers are taken into account.

Tagert acknowledged that the speed with which new 9 was built could lead officials connected to other projects to believe that that’s the new standard.

That’s not necessarily the case, Tagert said, pointing out that the design-build method of road construction is considerably more expensive than the traditional step process that’s been used for decades.

Mike Pepper, executive director of the Mississippi Roadbuilders Association, said that’s an explanation his membership would likely have to give to clients.

“But it’s a challenge they embrace,” he said after the ceremony. To go with the shortened build time, Pepper said using the design-build method to build a four-lane highway where road did not previously exist usually carries a cost of at least $1 million per mile. Highway 9’s 10 miles cost just under $90 million, which factored in the ahead-of-schedule completion incentives.

“When you put more responsibility on the contractor, when you offer incentives for early completion, it speeds up the entire process,” Pepper said.

The old Highway 9 will become a Pontotoc County road after resurfacing is complete.

>>MORE AT MBJ-TV: State and federal officials join local residents for the ribbon cutting of state Highway 9.


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