ALDOT, local officials discuss U.S. 280 elevated lanes

Financing concerns and many unanswered questions are forcing the Alabama Department of Transportation to place a U.S. 280 elevated express lane project on hold while the department seeks public support for the project.

ALDOT representatives briefed many Shelby County mayors, officials and business owners on the proposed elevated lane project during a May 5 meeting at Chelsea City Hall.

During the meeting, ALDOT Engineer Brian Davis told the group Gov. Bob Riley put the project on hold a few months ago to learn what residents and government officials along U.S. 280 thought of the project before ALDOT spent millions on studies and design work.

If constructed, the project would add four limited-access tolled express lanes over the existing six travel lanes from Eagle Point Parkway to Interstate 459 on U.S. 280.

As proposed, the project would also add ground-level express lanes on U.S. 280 westward from Interstate 459 to the Red Mountain Expressway in Birmingham, and would rework the U.S. 280/Interstate 459 interchange.

“Community support is very important to us,” Davis said. “If we have throngs of people in opposition to it, it could tie the project up for a year and a half in legal issues.

“An elevated, tolled expressway project is a big change from what ALDOT normally does,” Davis added, noting the tolls would be collected automatically whenever a driver enters the elevated highway. “So we want to know what the local governments think about it before we move on to the next step.”

Before the project was put on hold in March, ALDOT researched the project enough to “know it can be built,” said ALDOT Engineer Lance Taylor.

As of May 5, Hoover, Chelsea and Westover had passed resolutions supporting the project.

Although some Jefferson County cities, like Vestavia Hills and Homewood, have spoken out against the project, ALDOT representatives have sought to address their concerns, Davis said.

Because the project will not properly ease traffic congestion unless it is completed from Eagle Point Parkway to the Red Mountain Expressway, the project is “all or nothing,” Davis said.

“Is (the project) dead without their support?” District 1 Shelby County Commissioner Corley Ellis asked in reference to the Jefferson County cities.

“I’m not ready to say that yet,” Davis replied.

Because the project is expected to cost more than $800 million, Davis said ALDOT will not be able to fund the express lanes unless they are tolled. As proposed, tolls on the elevated expressway would be about 20 or 25 cents per mile.

“If the roads aren’t tolled, this project won’t happen,” Davis said, noting toll revenue, over time, would pay the project’s construction and maintenance costs. “This is an $800 million project, which is a megaproject for ALDOT. We usually operate on a budget of $705 million a year for the whole state.”

Davis also said the project likely would take about three and a half years to complete once construction begins, and would have a minimal impact on traffic while it is under construction.

“With the studies and everything, plus the construction time, you are looking at 5 years if we started today,” Davis said. “Most of the work is done above traffic, and we would close one lane of traffic every day probably from about 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

“The businesses on 280 wouldn’t suffer from this at all. They would still have the access and visibility,” Davis added. “It would actually help the people who were stuck in traffic trying to get to those businesses.”