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MDOT chief: Design flaw halted I-55 work

The biggest problem at the I-55 construction site near Byrum was a high percentage of Yazoo clay in the soil.

The biggest problem at the I-55 construction site near Byrum was a high percentage of Yazoo clay in the soil.

By Jack Weatherly

A design flaw in the widening of Interstate 55 between Byram and the I-20 interchange brought work to a halt on the heavily traveled stretch, according to Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath.

The mistake is in the design of retaining walls flaw in the 7.5-mile stretch from the southbound McDowell Road exit at the I-20 interchange to the Siwell Road exit at Byram, McGrath said.

The state’s three highway commissioners  On Jan. 5 unanimously terminated the contract with the design consultant, Infrastructure Corp. of America.

McGrath said Jan. 9 that the work load had been increased by 50 to 60 percent on the $94 million initial project, though she said she did not know how much more it would cost. The department expects the work to be substantially finished by late 2016, McGrath said.

James Construction of Baton Rouge had the contract, and will be able to put in a bid on the redesign, department spokesman Jarrod Ravencraft said earlier last week.

Ravencraft initially told the Mississippi Business Journal on Jan. 6 that the work was to be rebid because of soil conditions.

The stretch will remain open.

McGrath said that, true enough, there were unanticipated soil conditions — an unusually high percentage of Yazoo clay, a belt of which runs through central Mississippi and is known for its instability.

Work on adding two lanes was begun in the spring of 2013, McGrath said.

Since then, residents of Byram have had to deal, off and on, with exits being closed, and wrecks have increased, said Richard White, mayor of the town of 11,000.

“It has caused a hardship on some of the businesses,” said White, who owns an auto repair shop on the east-side frontage road.

The high percentage of Yazoo clay is because the contractor for the initial four-lane stretch, was built in the 1970s simply dumped the Yazoo clay on the apron of the roadway instead trucking it off the site.

“We pay them to haul it off to somebody else’s land,” McGrath said, adding that the clay makes an excellent liner for ponds and lakes.

Now the department has changed its approach and will conduct soil borings farther out from the roadbed in future projects, she said.

McGrath, who has been with the department for 25 years, said, “This is the first time I’ve encountered” clay dumping like this.

A belt of Yazoo clay runs through central Mississippi and is the bane of construction, whether it’s roadways or residences and other buildings.

Meantime, the department is talking with the consultant that designed the project, the Hernando office of Infrastructure Corp. of America, which was paid about $1.7 million by the state. There is a possibility of litigation, she said.

The consultant, whose headquarters are in Brentwood, Tenn., has done work for the state on other projects, but the I-55 project is currently the only one.

It will be redone as a design-build process, which puts design and construction under one contract. That approach is used in 45 states, and has been used in Mississippi, including the rebuilding of the Biloxi Bay Bridge and Bay St. Louis Bridge after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Meantime, a maintenance contract was awarded Tuesday to Superior Asphalt Inc. of Byram, which submitted the apparent low bid of about $1.3 million to overlay the southbound lanes and keep the road passable and safe for the public for the next two months, accordint to an email from the department.

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