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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Huntsville's Bypass Network, and Other Roads That Won't Be Built

This is the first in a couple of posts about transportation in the Huntsville area.

I went back and forth on whether or not to write a post on this; I didn't want to talk about stuff everyone already knows about. Well, like it or not, here it is...

As you probably know by now, the $500 million Southern Bypass portion through Redstone Arsenal has been blocked by the US Army due to future security issues. So, what now? First, a little background...

The Huntsville bypass "network", seen in this edited Chamber of Commerce map, will be an odd series of roads wrapping around the city, carrying such unique names as Northern Bypass, Southern Bypass, and Eastern Bypass (the western bypass is better known as Research Park Blvd.). The total length, if it still included the now-defunct Southern Bypass portion through Redstone Arsenal, would be about 55 miles when completed. Some of it, about 12 miles, is already at least 4 lanes with at-grade intersections.

A timeline:
  • 1965: The road we now know as Research Park Boulevard/AL 255 (or if you've lived here for a while, Rideout Road) began construction, over the next 20 years becomes freeway-standard from I-565 (then AL 20) to University Drive/US 72. Total length: ~3 miles.
  • 1995: The second phase of 255, from University to AL 53, opens. Total length: ~6 miles.
  • 2005: The third phase opens from AL53 to Pulaski Pike. This portion is called Martin Luther King Blvd. Total length: ~9 miles.
  • 2012-ish: The road is now 4-laned to Memorial Parkway, and freeway-standard to AL 53.
  • Sometime before 2030: The Northern Bypass will be completed to US 72 East, near Gurley, connecting to the Eastern Bypass currently around Hampton Cove. Hopefully some portion of the Southern Bypass will be built, at least the part from Parkway to New Hope/US 431. Total length: ~45 miles.
Now, of course, take the future stuff with a grain of salt. These roads have been on maps since the early 80s, as seen on these maps:

This first photo is from a 1982 (pre-565) map of Huntsville. Note that the route goes through several Northwest Huntsville neighborhoods. This obviously met a lot of opposition; and I wouldn't blame the residents one bit on this one.

The proposed route at this time continued east, and would have plowed through the Moores Mill/Winchester intersection, several neighborhoods on Shields Road, and hit 72 around Ryland Pike.

The next map (from 1991-ish, post-565) is obviously more aligned with the current plans to parallel Bob Wade Lane to the Parkway. By this time, the eastern portion was changed to parallel Homer Nance Road. Growth in the area forced the MPO to amend the 2030 Transportation Plan and put it closer to Maysville and Gurley.

Back to the Southern Bypass: If you can't build a Southern Bypass through Redstone Arsenal, the only feasible option is to go farther south, into Morgan County. If you live in South Huntsville, you may already use AL 36 as an alternate route to get onto 65 South towards Birmingham. Why not make it a 4-lane divided highway from I-65 to US 231? Interchanges could be built at AL 67, US 231, and a new 4-lane road that will connect to a 5-lane Zierdt Road (or Wall-Triana Hwy) in Triana, using a new bridge over the Tennessee River. This could solve a couple of current and future infrastructure issues-- East Morgan County needs a major east-west highway, and an alternate truck route to the Port of Huntsville may be needed as traffic continues to grow on I-565. It will be much less expensive than the original Southern Bypass, as none of this would be a full-blown freeway, and the right-of-way needed is mostly rural farmland. The only obstacles with this option would be getting federal approval to go through a portion of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, and it would be put at the bottom of ALDOT's barrel, putting the project back at square one and decades behind.

And while we're talking about things that will never get built, let's talk about the Memphis-to-Atlanta Highway. This thing's been on the drawing boards for forever. I don't think it's necessary, at least not in its current form:

1. The Mississippi portion is unneccessary, period; it is too rural and too close to I-22, which is already built in that area and serves the same purpose.
2. There is also no need for an all-new interstate between Decatur and Florence. Alternate 72 from Muscle Shoals to Decatur can be upgraded to be fairly limited-access, with interchanges only at the largest intersections, at a much cheaper price.
3. Is it really necessary to build the highway so far north of Decatur (see ALDOT stimulus map below), and have it parallel 565 through rural Limestone County? Why not build it as close to the river as the NWR allows, and connect it with an expanded 31/20 interchange?

The only part of the currently-planned highway that might be necessary is the portion from South Parkway onward to Georgia and I-75. This would almost cut in half the time it takes to get from Huntsville to Atlanta. But there are two things to consider: Is there enough of a demand for travel between the two cities? And will the high cost of building the road be offset by this demand and the subsequent economic development?

One of the points made in the Tennessee Valley Regional Growth Coordination Plan is that many people coming to the area for BRAC are coming from regions where passenger rail is more frequent, and the lack of it in this region might be seen as a "disadvantage." Atlanta is being looked at as a hub for high-speed rail in the Southeast, with several lines planned to places like Chattanooga and Birmingham. Could an Atlanta-to-Huntsville high-speed rail line be looked at as a cheaper (and faster) alternative to building a freeway?

Next in this short series: Alternate transportation, including what the region can do with its miniscule public transit system.


Anonymous said...

Excellent. I love it. I eat this stuff up. Love the old maps.


James said...

Glad you liked it Charles. The 1982 map was quite a find. It was fascinating to see how much the city has changed since then. No Madison Square, Research Park West, or Hampton Cove, the Space and Rocket Center had just opened... Lots of stuff like that.

Chris said...

I agree - great post. Love your site and all of the wonderful info.

Speaking of historic maps, check out http://alabamamaps.ua.edu. There are tons of old maps and aerial photos of Huntsville available.


Huntsville_Secede said...

Do you think the money that would have been spent on the southern bypass will be reallocated for other important projects such as the Parkway, 565 expansion west, 565/72 east overpasses, winchester, 53 etc. In other words shouldn't these projects be done quicker since money that would have been spent on the southern bypass is free to use on them? Or am I expecting too much of ALDOT?

James said...

While that would be nice, I doubt that substantial state money had been allocated to the project, except for preliminary design and environmental studies. About $4 million was budgeted this year for engineering and design; the bids were to be let in the summer. That $4 million might pave a road, but certainly not build an interchange or widen a road.

We could try to get the federal funding (if there is any) earmarked for the bypass moved to some other project, but I don't know if they can do that.

Anonymous said...

Since someone brought up the 565/72 overpass, do you have any insight into this project? I noticed that in '08 it was listed on the 'Transportation Quarterly Review' on the city of Huntsville's website. However, it is not showing up in any '09 articles.

James said...

If you're talking about the Moores Mill/Shields interchange(s), it is *supposed* to begin construction sometime before 2011. ALDOT will probably push it closer to 2020. No one will be sure until there are bulldozers on site.

Cody said...

Great job on the post.

It's a shame the southern bypass won't be built in its current form since it would have served so many traffic interests.

I like your idea of an east-west road across Morgan County with another river crossing near Triana.

I wonder if upgrading US 72 to a limited-access facility between the end of I-565 and Gurley at the Eastern Bypass will ever happen, or happen anytime by 2030 per the Huntsville Long-Range Transportation Plan?