Driving at 20 mph on the narrow road that links Anniston and Jacksonville through his town, Weaver’s mayor Wednesday avoided close-to-the-road mailboxes, patchworks of hastily filled potholes and other vehicles as he explained the problems that have plagued the roadway for more than two decades.
“All they’ve done is put a new surface on a bad road,” said Willis, talking about the quick paving job parts of the street outside City Hall received last summer. “It’s like putting vinyl siding on a rotting barn.”
Willis said he’s losing patience with a piecemeal approach to the process. Taking the role of Weaver historian, Willis explained that a project to fix Jacksonville Street started in 1993, when the City Council asked the Calhoun County Metropolitan Planning Organization for help securing federal money to repave the road.
It turned out the street had a lot more problems than just a few potholes.
“In order to secure federal aid money for a road project, it has to meet certain criteria,” said Brian Rosenbalm, Calhoun County’s engineer. Among the problems for the street were utility lines that ran directly underneath the asphalt, drainage and runoff issues, and narrow, dangerous shoulders.
“The project went from being a simple resurfacing to a complete rebuild,” Rosenbalm said.
In the mid-1990s, Willis said, the city borrowed $500,000 from a bank for Jacksonville Street improvement and set it aside while an engineering survey was conducted on the road. Rosenbalm said the project ended up stalling more than a decade ago when it was found the county needed to buy tracts of land to widen the road. Residents resisted and Weaver scaled back its plans, he said.
Willis first took office as mayor in 2004, and when he left office in 2008, he said work was slated to begin in 2009.
But it didn’t.
Weaver City Councilman Jeff Clendenning said “it has the appearance” that former mayor Garry Bearden killed the project during his tenure in office. The money set aside for the project instead went to paying city debt. Councilwoman Ellen Cole said the justification at the time was the money could be spent elsewhere.
“He just said it was too much money,” for the project, Cole said. “And now we’re left with the street, which is just an accident waiting to happen.”
An attempt to reach Bearden on Wednesday was unsuccessful.
But borrowed money doesn’t simply disappear, Rosenbalm said. If Weaver were to back out of the project, the city would owe the state the $500,000 initially set aside for the project.
“Theoretically, if a project comes to a stop, the entity responsible for borrowing the money is expected to pay back the full amount of funds,” Rosenbalm said. “That’s a million-dollar question right now. You’re talking about a project that’s 18 or 19 years old, gone through three county engineers, who knows how many mayors. We’re trying to work with the state to figure this out.”
As Willis puts it, regardless of whether Weaver pushes ahead with the project, the city is still going to have to foot a high bill.
“So we can walk away, wash our hands clean of this, but we still have to write a check for $500,000,” Willis said. “If I want to spend money like that, I’d like to see the road taken care of, too.”
Willis said crunch-time is coming soon to make a decision, as he seeks money for the city through state assistance and a municipal bond. But first, he said, the City Council will have to decide how it wants to proceed on the project. But if the mayor gets his way, the road will be taken care of sooner rather than later.
“I don’t want to end this tenure as mayor and still have nothing done with Jacksonville Street,” Willis said. “This project has been going on too long and it should have been done years ago.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.