The construction of Midtown, the large mixed-use project along Opelika Road, has spurred the city of Auburn to shift forward to Phase 4 of its Renew Opelika Road Plan and bring improvements to the road and streetscape between Gentry Drive and Saugahatchee Road.

The city, working with Skipper Consulting and Hydro-Engineering Solutions on the project, recently received design plans and is working through easement acquisition and utility relocation coordination while it prepares bid documents, said Engineering Services Director Alison Frazier.

"We had originally planned to start this summer, but again everybody is super-busy, including our design professionals," she said. "I anticipate we will be starting probably in the fall."

The project has a current budget of about $1.6 million, although those estimates could rise. 

"Honestly, our construction costs have been much more escalated recently than our estimates, so before we get it ready for bid we will update that cost estimate now that we have probably about 90, 95 percent plans," said Frazier. "Material costs have gone up, but I think it’s just a factor of demand and contractor capacity. I have not seen it like this in my career. I guess it’s a good problem to have, but it does make construction projects take longer."

The city is currently working through a development agreement with the developer of Midtown, who will have some responsibility for improvements, said Frazier.

"We’re just trying to mesh those two things together because clearly we don’t want them to construct improvements that are in our way," she said. 

Midtown, which is being built on the south side of Opelika Road on property between the old Plaza Hotel and Mike's Merchandise, is expected to be completed this fall.

This phase of the Renew Opelika Road Plan will include a number of improvements — two landscaped medians with overhead lighting; a 6-foot sidewalk on the north side of Opelika Road; a potential 5-foot sidewalk on the south side of the road; bike lanes; the installation of curbs and gutters; and a crosswalk at Saugahatchee Road.

It will also feature multiple safety enhancements, including offset left turn lanes.

"For many years and what we’ve seen traditionally, is lefts that are directly opposing each other," Frazier said. "These will actually be offset several feet to enhance the safety so you can see around the other vehicle."

The project will also include an access management feature that hasn't been used in Auburn before — the addition of two U-turn bulbs, which was recommended by Skipper Consulting. 

"Currently, you can turn left and right out of any driveway along this section. We’ve got a center turn lane. As part of this project, we will construct medians that will restrict lefts out from some of the businesses on the north side of the road," said Frazier, who noted that one bulb will be located near U-Haul. "Say you want to go to U-Haul and you’re coming from Auburn towards the mall, you’ll basically get into the median, into the turn lane, get in that bulb and turn around.

"Most cars can make that maneuver pretty easily. The bulbs are designed to accommodate truck traffic, not like a tractor-trailer, but more of your box truck, U-Haul type vehicles."

The medians will restrict lefts, reducing conflict points out of many driveways, with the bulbs allowing for U-turns.

Pedestrians will also benefit from the wider buffer the bike lanes, curb and gutter installation and sidewalks will provide, said Frazier, who added that the hope is also that the improvements spur more redevelopment in the area.

"I think it will definitely provide a safer place for pedestrians. There’s a ton of pedestrian traffic on this route. The trails are very noticeable," she said. "With that enhanced safety, hopefully it will spur some redevelopment. Having the Twin City piece come in is huge for the city, so hopefully it will spur more redevelopment."

Phase 3 — improvements to the Opelika Road/Dean Road intersection — and Phase 5 — improvements between Ross and Temple streets — are currently budgeted for Fiscal Year 2021.

"It’s going to look a lot different. I’m excited and nervous about it at the same time," Frazier said. "I think it’s definitely going to be an enhancement to our safety and traveling public. Visually, I think it’s going to look good once we do the landscaping in the medians."

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