Westbound traffic jams at the Alabama 20 overpass near Hospitality Park are a regular occurrence during afternoon rush hour, but city leaders have been unable to convince Alabama Department of Transportation officials that there’s a problem to be fixed.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Mayor Tab Bowling have pushed unsuccessfully for the state to change the overpass from one to two lanes and move the point where Alabama 20 and U.S. 31 merge to the southbound causeway.
“They could add two lanes to the bridge so there’s not such a bottleneck,” Bowling said. “But they’re the professional engineers, and they don’t think there’s a problem.”
Orr said he asked the state to look at it two years ago.
“It’s dangerous to have that merge on the bridge,” Orr said.
ALDOT spokesman Seth Burkett said there is room to turn the 28-foot wide overpass from one to two lanes, but his department doesn’t believe there’s an immediate problem that can be solved by changing the merge point.
“It really only backs up when there’s a crash on the (U.S. 31) bridge or the causeway. Generally, there’s only a big delay when something happens,” said Burkett, who uses the overpass daily in his commute from the Huntsville ALDOT office to his home in Decatur.
But Bowling and Orr disagree with Burkett, and the mayor said it’s only going to worsen with the widening of Interstate 565, the planned Alabama 20 conversion to a limited-access highway and expected traffic that the new Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA plant will add.
“Every day during the 5 o’clock rush hour the traffic backs ups,” Orr said. “And I’ve been at the boat harbor (Riverwalk Marina) entrance and watched car tags. There are cars from Lawrence, Lauderdale, Colbert, Winston and even Cullman counties traveling through this area.”
Orr said he would like to see the causeway widened on the southbound side to three lanes, as they did on the northbound side, and then merge to two lanes near the marina.
“The smaller bridge (on the causeway) is wide enough but they said the Federal Highway Administration won’t allow them to use up all of the shoulder like they did on the northbound side,” Orr said.
Burkett said shifting the merge point to the causeway or east on Alabama 20 “only serves to move the problem and doesn’t solve anything.”
Orr said it makes more sense to get the merge point off of the bridge to the flat road on the causeway, where he suggested the traffic on U.S. 31 from Calhoun Community College and Athens should merge instead of making drivers on the more heavily traveled Alabama 20 merge.
“Right now, you’re forcing the higher volume traffic to merge,” Orr said.
Bowling said he understands the state doesn’t want to make a change at the overpass, so he’s looking for other ways to help traffic in the area. He said one of his priorities, if he is reelected to a second term, is to push for a river bridge from Alabama 20 near Nucor to Huntsville-Brownsferry Road in Limestone County.
“This would create a route for the trucks to Mazda Toyota and their suppliers and take them off U.S. 31/Alabama 20,” Bowling said.
Orr and Burkett said widening Huntsville-Brownsferry Road is in the state’s plans sooner rather than later.
However, Orr said a new bridge isn’t likely because of the cost. He pointed out that south Alabama and Mobile have had a hard time getting the money to build a new bridge for Interstate 10.
In 2015, the state wanted a private company to construct and operate a $444 million toll bridge over the Tennessee River from Wilson Street Northwest, east of Ingalls Harbor, to Alabama 20, just east of U.S. 31. The plan also called for widening Alabama 20 north of the river and also making it a toll road.
Decatur residents were heavily against the idea because they would have to pay to use one of two routes out of the city to Interstate 65 and I-565, and the state killed the proposal.
Orr said a bridge from Nucor to Limestone County would likely be shorter and thus less expensive.
“It’s always good to have vision and aspirations, but the costs are extraordinary for a bridge,” Orr said.