Pelham, Calera receive massive grants for railroad overpasses

Published 7:58 am Tuesday, June 6, 2023

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

Two of Shelby County’s biggest cities are receiving nearly $53 million in grants to help diminish one of the biggest problems the county faces.

The city of Pelham and city of Calera were both awarded grants on Monday, June 5 to help relieve problems related to railroad crossings along the western side of Shelby County.

Pelham’s grant was the largest in the nation awarded under the Federal Railroad Administration’s Railroad Crossing Elimination Program and totals $41,766,038 to help eliminate two railroad crossings.

Calera’s grant, while not as large, will also eliminate two railroad crossings in the city. The grant totaled $11,742,184 and will alleviate congestion at two different downtown crossings.

“This is unprecedented,” Pelham Mayor Gary Waters said in an announcement Monday. “Staff spent months collecting the necessary data to put together a thorough and thoughtful application, and their work should be commended because a project no one thought would ever happen is now a reality and fully funded.”

The above image shows a rendering of what the changes will look like with the new overpass bridge in Pelham eliminating two railroad crossings. (Contributed)

One of the biggest reasons for the grant, aside from traffic congestion in two major cities, is the safety and travel of first responders, who are often blocked from getting to their destination because of a train.

A story written by the Shelby County Reporter last September detailed the safety hazards first responders have to deal with because of train blockages during emergency situations and can be read here.

Both Pelham and Calera applied for the grants that same month with $537 million available nationally and a maximum of $114,652,800 available to any one state.

“In the interest of public safety, we are making an application for that funding,” Pelham Communications Manager Ainsley Allison said about the application last September. “In a 24-hour period, we saw 32 trains come through both of those crossings. It added up to maybe two hours where those crossings were blocked for rail traffic. The longest one was during peak rush hour. (The crossing) was closed for 12 minutes.”

Pelham City Councilman Maurice Mercer said he was thankful the FRA awarded Pelham the largest grant in 2023, which was signed by President Joe Biden Monday morning. He added his thanks to the collaboration between the city of Pelham, Shelby County, the city of Helena and State Representatives Kenneth Paschal and April Weaver.

“Whenever traffic is delayed at the County Road 52 crossing, it slows commerce, affects business and causes frustration among Alabama residents who are simply trying to go about their daily lives without obstacles,” Paschal said. “Rescue vehicles and other first responders are often prevented from reaching half of the city when trains are crossing, which threatens public safety. The $41 million federal grant and flyover project announced today will remove these impediments and improve the quality of life for everyone who lives, works, visits, or conducts business in Pelham.”

The Pelham improvements will establish a permanent travel route for first responders and decrease delays for approximately 24,000 daily drivers in the area, according to the city of Pelham.

The city said the road carries the second-highest traffic volume of any east-to-west route in the area due to its connection between Helena and other areas of Shelby County to I-65 and the central/eastern side of Shelby County.

With that, Helena mayor Brian Pucket is also excited for how it will impact his city moving forward.

“The grant that the City of Pelham secured to eliminate the two at-grade railroad crossings benefit the City of Helena by allowing easier access in and out of Helena,” he said in the announcement. “This access is critical for emergency care and streamlines our residents’ commutes.”

The project will impact the two railroad crossings on Shelby County 52 near the U.S. 31 intersection with a bridge over both crossings. This means the intersection of Shelby County 52 and U.S. 31 will be reconfigured with additional upgrades and will include widening for increased capacity.

“This is an example of several partners collaborating for the good of the people who live, work and visit Shelby County. Pelham took the lead on this and should be commended for taking the initiative to go after this grant,” said Shelby County Commissioner Ward Williams. “The County is always willing to partner with its municipalities.”

State senators Tommy Tuberville and Katie Britt both commended how impressive the collaboration was to make this project come to fruition with the federal and local governments working together to help local citizens and first responders.

A rendering of what the restructured portion of Shelby County 25 would look like in Calera with a new overpass bridge. (Contributed)

The same can be said for Calera, who also took the initiative to apply for the grant last September in hopes of receiving some relief.

“We are thrilled to receive this grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration,” Calera Mayor Jon Graham said. “The overpass bridge project is a gamechanger for Calera, as it will significantly enhance public safety and alleviate traffic congestion in our downtown area. We are excited about the positive impact this project will have on our community and are deeply grateful for the support we have received.”

The more than $11.7 million grant will be used to develop, plan and construct an overpass bridge that will eliminate two downtown crossings once the project is complete.

The plan is to take the current stretch of Shelby County 25 that intersects with U.S. 31 and 18th Avenue and continue it across 18th Avenue with an overpass going over the main railroad track running through downtown, then over 9th street before reconnecting on the other side with the existing Shelby County 25.

Calera officials said this project will not only help the city be more efficient and lead to more impact economically with smooth travel to and from the city to the Interstate 65 area, but like others, they see the benefits for first responders.

One other area that largely impacts Calera is the projects impact to Main Street. With a major revitalization project for the city’s Main Street district, the overpass bridge will eliminate the dangers of high traffic, including large 18-wheelers, making the turn from the existing Shelby County 25, left onto the U.S. 31 portion of Main Street, leading to a safer and more walkable downtown district.

There is currently no timetable for the start or completion of either project, but updates will be provided as work dates are set.