Planning Commission outlines plan for HOV lanes, transit system

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

The Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham is making plans to bring high-occupancy vehicle lanes and a bus transit system to northern and central Shelby County through its Mobility Matters Project.

In a study the Planning Commission recently presented to the project’s steering committee, the commission laid out plans for HOV lanes on Interstate 65 from the Valleydale Road exit in Pelham to the University Boulevard exit in downtown Birmingham.

The study also called for a bus transit system around the Birmingham metropolitan area, including Alabaster, Pelham and Hoover.

The new HOV lanes would be the innermost lanes on I-65, and would use exits and on-ramps independent from the other lanes of traffic, said Planning Commission Public Affairs Officer Greg Wingo.

“It would be a very seamless transition onto and off the highway. You could easily access the lanes from an intersection,” Wingo said. “That way, you don’t have to cross several lanes of traffic to get on and off the interstate.”

Wingo said the commission originally considered creating additional general purpose lanes or toll lanes, but found the HOV alternative would better address the I-65 congestion issue.

The study calls for one southbound HOV lane and one northbound HOV lane. The HOV lanes would be open for vehicles carrying two people or more.

Currently, crews are conducting environmental studies on the proposed HOV lane corridor, and the Planning Commission is working to find funding for the project. After the studies, engineering and construction, the project likely will total about $600 million, Wingo said.

“I think it’s obvious that there’s a traffic congestion problem on I-65,” Wingo said. “The study shows that we can alleviate some of that by adding these lanes.

“Because we are still trying to identify funding sources, I wouldn’t be able to give a ballpark timeline (for the HOV project),” Wingo added. “Certainly for the length of that corridor, this is a long-term project.”

The steering committee presentation also called for creating a bus transit system along I-65 and U.S. 31 in parts of Shelby County.

The bus routes would connect Alabaster, Pelham and Hoover in Shelby County to Birmingham and other parts of the metro area.

The study outlines several stops in high-traffic areas such as Alabaster’s Colonial Promenade shopping center and businesses along U.S. 31 in Pelham.

Shelby County officials have already finalized plans to construct a park-and-ride lot near the Shelby County Airport, and the study calls for additional park-and-ride lots near I-65 on Shelby County 52 and Alabama 119 in Pelham.

“It’s essentially dead property. Nothing else is going to go there,” Planning Commission Deputy Director of Planning Darrell Howard said of the land chosen for the proposed park-and-ride lots.

The transit stops in Alabaster, Pelham and Hoover would not only help local commuters travel to work in Birmingham, it would also help those commuting to Shelby County.

“The stops at the (Shelby Baptist Medical Center) made sense because of the large number of reverse commuters,” Howard said. “Shelby County is quickly becoming a destination for commuters.”

Howard said studies have shown transit stops typically help businesses, as people getting off the bus tend to shop near their stop.

Because the transit project would involve several municipalities, the Planning Commission is researching how it could split the cost among the cities served.

“Who pays for picking people if the transit serves Alabaster, Pelham, Hoover and other cities?” Howard said.

Though the Planning Commission is still trying to identify funding for the transit project, rising gas prices could put the project on the fast track, Howard said.

“It’s not as difficult as people think to create a transit system,” he said. “It’s very conceivable that, depending on gas prices, we could see this very quickly.”