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Utility Line Mess Stalls WLR Road Upgrade

5 min read

Anticipating the upgrade of west Little Rock’s Rodney Parham Road has been like waiting for an especially slow train. The latest disruption in the long-awaited infrastructure improvement project is the relocation of underground utility services to make way for the expanded roadway.

Surprises keep surfacing along the thoroughfare as Redstone Construction Group uncovers old, unknown problems as well as new ones.

“It’s just been a utility nightmare,” said Phillip Ray, project manager for the Little Rock contracting firm. “We’re finding utilities in the ground that no one seemed to know about.”

Redstone’s construction timetable has fallen apart as crews rerouting utilities continue untangling the mishmash of electric, gas, communications, water and sewer lines along a mile-long section of Rodney Parham.

Comcast’s relocated fiber optics line is still in the way of roadwork along with portions of a relocated Central Arkansas Water line that isn’t deep enough.

“We thought we finally got all the utilities moved to the west side and could start working on storm drains” south of Pleasant Valley Drive, Ray said. “Now we’ve hit an Entergy transmission line that no one seemed to know about, and we’re back to waiting and changing our whole game plan.

“It’s just a constant battle.”

The ongoing problems are linked with an unhelpful but long-standing practice. Utility companies didn’t take full advantage of a large easement and instead placed their service lines near the road.

That closer-to-the-road policy was meant to avoid routing utilities farther into the front yards of homes along the northern corridor of Rodney Parham.

The properties are all subject to an 80-foot-wide easement dedicated for future road expansion and space for utility services to lay pipes and cable beneath the ground as well as string lines above ground by pole. 

“It would’ve been nice if they had built along the perimeter of the right-of-way,” said Mike Hood, manager of the city’s Civil Engineering Division. “The utilities were reluctant to go in and tear into people’s yards. We never had the full use of the right-of-way that we should have.”

On paper years ago, Rodney Parham’s full 6.4-mile run was planned as a five-lane arterial linking Kanis Road in the south with Cantrell Road in the north. Finishing the last section that passes through the Pleasant Valley neighborhood and within a block of its namesake country club became a political hot potato. 

“The job was thought of long ago but tabled for decades,” Hood said. “There was never a complete 100% consensus on what should be done there on Rodney Parham, but something needed to be done. The question was: What? And there was lots of back- and-forth.”

Residential pushback prompted a revised configuration for the stretch through Pleasant Valley.

“The two-lane road will become three-lane with a center turn lane, which by itself is a big improvement,” Hood said. “Another aspect of it was a nod to bicycle advocacy and the city’s own master plan. It was decided to provide 5-foot bike lanes on each side.”

Redstone’s reconstruction contract totals more than $6.7 million, which reflects a 20% contingency above its base bid of $5.6 million.

Flags Aplenty

As relocation work progresses, the construction corridor sprouts an ever-changing palette of flags marking underground utilities.

The color-coding prescribed by the American Public Works Association denotes red for electric power lines, cables, conduit and lighting cables; yellow for gas lines; orange for communication, cable TV, alarm or signal lines, cables or conduit; blue for water and irrigation lines; green for sewer and drain lines; pink for temporary survey markings; and white for proposed excavation.

Even with markers helping map what’s underfoot, mistakes are bound to happen in an area of dense utility infrastructure. And that’s what happened earlier this year when AT&T’s duct bank was damaged by another utility company crew. The array of communications cable also contained Verizon lines.

“It caused a significant delay,” Hood said. “The companies have major trunk lines in the right-of-way that are important in the overall scheme of their operations.

“Our franchise agreements require that they will relocate at their expense. If federal money is available, then the utilities can recover their costs, but there is no federal money in this project.

“Our agreement with Entergy is different. We don’t have to reimburse them for work within much of the city. But if you get into areas that were annexed after the original franchise agreement, then the city has to pay.” 

And with the Rodney Parham project, the city does have to pay for the relocation of Entergy’s electrical service lines, about $115,000 so far.

Dealing with the logistical challenges and added cost in time and money of utility relocation is a common challenge in road improvement projects, said Mark Hayes, executive director of the Arkansas Municipal League.

“Frankly, it happens everywhere,” Hayes said. “You end up with what seems like an appropriate location for the utilities and then it’s not.”

Utility companies have a fair amount of discretion when it comes to placement of conduits and pipes within easements.

“To the best of my knowledge, I’m not aware of any uniform guidelines,” Hayes said. “It’s not really a legislative issue either. It would be more of a situation of street engineers getting together and adopting a best practices model.”

The Redstone Construction contract specified a 270-calendar-day timeline for completing the improvements once its crew began work. Instead, the protracted utility relocation efforts have limited the company’s access to the job site.

The project’s original completion date has slipped away as utility work drags on. Aug. 8 was the most recent deadline committed to writing, but that is now unrealistic.

Redstone’s Phillip Ray is hesitant to ballpark a possible completion date given the utilities chaos.

“You’re probably looking at February or March, depending on the weather,” he said.

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