Birmingham--If you've ever driven down Highway 280 (and chances are you have) you know how congested it can be. Corley Ellis says on a Sunday his commute from his Shelby County home to downtown Birmingham is about a half an hour. But on a workday? Triple that time!
As a Shelby County Commissioner, that worries Ellis. He says shops may be missing out on business, and the county may be missing out on tax revenue. That's why he supports the state's plan to ease traffic congestion. But not all local government officials support the plan, as WBHM's Tanya Ott reports in the first of our weeklong series on U.S. 280.
The Alabama Department of Transportation wants to spend $800 million to build a 10-lane freeway from The Elton Stephens Expressway in Homewood to Dolly Ridge Road in Vestavia. It would then build an elevated highway from near Dolly Ridge down to Eagle Point in Shelby County. Four lanes of the expanded highway would be a toll road all the way from Shelby County up to Homewood and Mountain Brook.
The state says it would reduce traffic congestion by roughly 30 percent and that the tolls would foot much of the bill. It makes sense to Shelby county commissioner Corley Ellis.
"I think it's aesthetically pleasing, as much as any highway can be. I like the presentation. I like the idea of it. It seems like to me that the elevated highway will be a more long-term and certainly a more viable option at this point from a financial standpoint."
But further up 280 local government officials see it differently.
"I thought it was the most ridiculous option ever afforded."
That's Birmingham City Councilor Kim Rafferty. She's chairwoman of the city's transportation committee.
"All of the traffic that's generated and clogs up that 280 corridor is still going to clog up that 280 corridor because the toll road is only for those commuters coming off Double Oak Mountain from Shelby County and having them hop, skip and jump through the whole Inverness area all the way down."
Rafferty says there wouldn't be enough access points along the toll road to get residents in Inverness, Hoover, Vestavia Hills, or Homewood to use it. And if they did manage to get on the toll road, well, that scares Homewood city councilwoman Allyn Holladay.
"If you have a throughway that prevents people from stopping, where now we have easy access getting to mountain brook even, and we have a very symbiotic relationship, they use us we use them, or our Brookwood mall, which is very easy on-off access, you start pushing traffic away from us in front of our major economic base and then you impact our schools, you impact our home values, you impact everything that we depend on to be the city that we are."
And the road expansion, taking 280 to 10 lanes in Vestavia Hills, Homewood and Mountain Brook? Holladay says she doesn't like what she's hearing from state transportation officials.
"They said 'We barely have enough easement to do what we're planning. Welcome to concrete world!' Well... you know, that's immediately going to back people up. Welcome to concrete world?!? Wait a minute, where's the noise study on this? What about vibration studies? What happens to my house that's 100 years old or 75 years old when all of the suddenly we've got 20 times more traffic coming through and it's not 100 feet from my house but 20 feet from my house?"
The Homewood City Council recently passed a resolution against the plan. Hoover voted to support it, though mayor Tony Petelos says there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Vestavia Hills Mayor Butch Zaragoza says he hasn't made up his mind. Like Hoover officials, he's still got a lot of questions.
"We really want to look at other alternatives that may be out there. I know ALDOT has got a proposal to do a fly-over at 459 and this is has already been proposed and already has money allocated for it from what we understand. It's gonna be about $45M project. If we go ahead and do that, ALDOT's own projection is that it will take off 25-35% of the traffic problems on 280. Well we're hearing that the toll road will take off about 25-35% of the problem on 280. Would it not make more sense maybe to go head and put the flyover in and look at it and see, in the future is there other things that we can do on 280?"
Other things like eliminating some of the red lights and changing the way turn lanes work up and down 280. Opponents to the state's plan, including those that have floated an alternative 280 plan, say there are easier, cheaper ways to relieve congestion. But Shelby County commissioner Corley Ellis is skeptical.
"Any fix other than substantially adding lanes to 280 would be a temporary fix. I think we would outgrow those fixes before they're finished even."
The state has one plan. Critics have another. Each municipality along the corridor has its own idea of what should be done. And we haven't even touched the topic of mass transit. But we will, in this week's series. In tomorrow' segment we hear from one of the biggest proponents of the state's plan: the Birmingham Business Alliance.
~ Tanya Ott, April 26, 2010.