By MADOLINE MARKHAM
Survey crews have been at work on Highway 280 over the past several months, which might have led those who travel it daily to wonder, “Maybe they’ll do something to alleviate the traffic bane of everyone’s existence?”
The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) is currently completing survey work on the highway that will help determine a course of action for future improvements on the highway, according to Brian Davis, Third Division engineer at ALDOT.
“It will help any decision that will be made,” said Davis, who has worked on Highway 280 issues since 1994. “It enables us to do a better job analyzing any alternatives on the table. We want to make a decision based on sound numbers.”
Once the survey work is completed, ALDOT will discuss their findings and determine the best solution with Governor Robert Bentley. When ALDOT and the governor decide on one plan to proceed with, they will involve the public.
Ultimately, the governor will make the final decision. When campaigning in August, Governor Bentley said he favored building an elevated roadway. In January, the governor’s spokesperson said he did not favor one plan over another.
“No plan will ever please everyone,” Davis said, “but we want to figure out the best long term solution.”
When will they be able to determine a solution? Davis said they can’t put a timeline on it now.
When a decision is made, it will, however, be for all of Highway 280, not just one side of I-459 or the other, Davis said. ALDOT is currently looking at the two plans that have been proposed over the past several years: the FIGG Engineering plan for an elevated highway and Rethink 280’s alternative plan. 280 Living took a look at the two major proposals that have come to the table over the years.
FIGG Engineering has devised an elevated highway plan to alleviate the traffic issues.
Currently, 30 percent of traffic on Highway 280 is coming from south of Eagle Point Parkway and not intending to stop or turn off the highway until I-459 or beyond. With this plan, all of this traffic would access an elevated highway from Eagle Point Parkway and stay on for the 5.5 miles to 459.
There would be at least one entry/exit point off the elevated highway and possibly more; this is still under consideration. Businesses along the highway argue that cars would not stop along the way with this plan, but proponents of the FIGG plan argue that currently, people cannot access the businesses effectively because of congestion. They say that separating through traffic and local traffic will better serve businesses. Thru traffic commuters on the elevated highway would not be stopping at businesses regardless of access points. Local traffic accessing the businesses would still travel the street-level, at-grade roadway and have easier access to businesses with the reduction of cars on the at-grade roadway.
The elevated highway would be built primarily at night and during off-peak periods. Specially engineered concrete segments would be constructed on a site near the highway and then brought over the completed highway to build the bridge from the top. These segments would be connected like a large Lego set to form the elevated road. Traffic would keep moving on the at-grade roadway at all times during construction.
The segments are designed with technology to contain the elevated highway’s lighting and capture its noise as well as to cover the exterior with aesthetically pleasing materials like limestone.
In the 2007 proposal, this project was estimated to cost $386 million; a $2-3 toll was proposed to fund the bond issued to cover the expenses. There has also been a proposal for an elevated highway to stretch past I-459 to Elton B. Stephens Expressway; this entire project would cost about $800 million.
All details of the toll funding are currently under consideration. As of the 2010 plan, there would be no tollbooths or plazas; transponder and electronic equipment would scan a bar code in vehicles and allow traffic to move at full speed.
The elevated highway construction would be similar to the Selmon Expressway in Tampa, another FIGG project. It cut commute time in half by adding six lanes on piers in the median of the existing urban expressway. The 5.13 mile elevated roadway diverted 20 percent of traffic. The construction cost $100 million or $65 per square foot and was paid for in part by a $1.50 toll.
Proponents of the FIGG plan argue for its simplicity to build. Those opposed claim it is too expensive and that the elevated structure would hurt the landscape of the area.
ReThink 280 plan
A second conversation is what to do with 4.7-mile segment of Highway 280 from 459 to Elton B. Stephens Expressway. ALDOT has been discussing an alternate plan to an elevated highway for this segment with grassroots group ReThink 280.
ReThink 280 started when representatives from Homewood, Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills disliked the elevated proposal and came together with their communities to design an alternate plan. ReThink 280 argues that their communities have more established neighborhoods that have less growth and less growth potential than the other side of I-459.
They have designed, but not engineered, plans for no traffic signals for through traffic as well as a way to rework the Elton B. Stephens interchange. Eventually, ALDOT would have to take control of the plan and work out engineering details for it to be viable.
The ReThink 280 design starts east of Dolly Ridge Road, where the ten lanes from the proposed elevated highway would become six at-grade lanes as you travel past I-459 toward downtown.
There would be two sections of the road sunken under the current grade to accommodate access to side roads. They would be slightly less than a half mile each: the first from Hampton Inn to Office Park, and the second from just east of Rocky Ridge Road to Cahaba Village. Drivers would take a ramp off Highway 280 onto a roundabout to go to cross streets and shopping centers.
In addition, they would build bridges for intersecting roads Cherokee Road and Dolly Ridge Road to go over Highway 280.
ReThink 280 estimates their plan would cost around $180 million, significantly less than the elevated highway. ALDOT argues that it will cost more with maintenance expenses.
Also as a part of the ReThink 280 design, the Elton B. Stephens interchange would be reconstructed to make the primary flow of traffic from Highway 280 to Elton B. Stephens instead of from Highway 31 to Elton B. Stephens as it is now.
For now, the ReThink 280 designs are conceptual and not engineered. “There are still complications; it is a complicated corridor,” Temple Tutwiler of ReThink 280 said at a public hearing in June. Their mission remains to prove to ALDOT that there are other alternatives to the elevated highway that work.
ALDOT has asked for more detailed information from Walter Kulash, the Florida-based traffic consultant working on the ReThink plans, to see if that idea has merit, Davis said.
“The ideas we are considering will mold themselves into the viable solution, whatever that is.”
What do you think about the FIGG and ReThink280 plans? What, in your opinion, should be done with the corridor? Tell us at http://www.280living, on our Facebook page or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.