From vision to right-of-way acquisition, what’s happening with the City of Huntsville’s infrastructure development? In this multi-part series, we hear from those who lead the effort. We’ll explore the roadwork questions – from Big Picture to granular – on the minds of Huntsville citizens. Have we missed something you want to know? E-mail us at email@example.com.
It’s safe to say Shane Davis never stops.
He doesn’t stop after securing nationally coveted economic development projects, and he certainly never stops advocating for Huntsville, even when speaking off the record with members of his City team for a City Blog on road development.
It’s also safe to say part of that drive and passion for Huntsville was passed down to Davis from his predecessor Dallas Fanning, long time Planning Director for the City of Huntsville. Fanning hired Davis in 2001, and he made his vision for City government clear to Davis.
“We’re going to leave this place better than we found it.”
“Dallas said from the beginning, ‘If you don’t have a passion for this City, I will run you off,” Davis says with a smile.
It’s very safe to say Fanning, who passed away in 2016, would be proud of Davis – for both his passion for Huntsville and his ability to place the pieces of the development puzzle together to position Huntsville for success.
As Mayor Tommy Battle’s Director of Urban and Economic Development, Davis holds what is essentially the number three spot at City Hall. Overseeing seven City departments, including Planning and Engineering, Davis is at the forefront of economic development, which includes more than recruiting industry. After all, to recruit jobs you need infrastructure that works, vessels that reliably and efficiently deliver people and supplies to those major industry projects. We’re talking about, you guessed it, roads.
Spend any amount of time talking with Davis, and it’s clear. Planning for the roads of Huntsville’s future isn’t an afterthought. It’s the foundational building block.
When Davis talks to you one-on-one, as he did in this interview, it’s as if he is filling you in on a secret – divulging information that is very, very important. Information he’s entrusting you to keep safe. His voice lowers to a near whisper and you instinctively lean in, preparing yourself for the tremendous Huntsville insider knowledge he’s about to impart.
Leaning in yet?
“Greenbriar Parkway is a perfect example of how smart planning lays the foundation for securing these game-changing projects,” Davis begins. “It was created to open up a corridor for thousands of jobs, and that’s exactly what has happened with Polaris, Mazda-Toyota and now multiple suppliers adding an additional 2,000+ jobs.”
Without the foresight to create the space – in terms of annexing land, building roads and installing utilities – Davis says Huntsville would not have been in the consideration set for projects such as Mazda-Toyota Manufacturing. The Rocket City wouldn’t have had the space.
It all ties back to a basic understanding of how cities – and the people who live in them – prosper.
As costs continue to rise for everything from household supplies to building materials, the question becomes how municipalities raise the funds needed to provide citizens quality services, maintain infrastructure and develop out that infrastructure in a way that benefits all.
Davis says Huntsville’s strategy – and this harkens back to the days of Dallas Fanning – has been strategic growth.
“We can either keep up with growth or raise taxes. No one likes to have their taxes raised, so we’ve always been aggressive about growth,” Davis said. “There’s a method to the madness. We’re creating a strong tax base for our future. It’s this strategy that has kept the cost of living relatively low in Huntsville and provided new opportunities for our citizens.”
So, what are the primary milestone road projects Davis believes are instrumental in this growth and the long-term health of Huntsville? You’ll definitely want to lean in a little closer to your devices for this part.
Memorial Parkway and I-565 Interchange
This would be a game changer for Huntsville. As Davis spoke about the project, he referenced a map of the critical junction that always has a prominent space in his office.
If you’ve driven in Huntsville at all, you know the spot. Locals call it our “malfunction junction.” It’s where traffic from I-565 merges onto South Memorial Parkway, and it’s frequently backed up for what seems like miles during morning and evening commutes.
The improvements the City has in mind for this interchange include adding lanes to this portion of I-565 and providing additional capacity to directional ramps leading into Huntsville.
Originally designed to handle about 58,000 cars per day, it’s no surprise considering Huntsville’s growth that the juncture is currently over capacity with 110,00 cars on average traveling the major artery daily.
The interchange is the singular offshoot from the Interstate into the heart of Huntsville, a fact that is a bit of an oddity according to Davis.
“If you think about major cities we’re competing with every day for jobs, cities like Austin, TX, Raleigh, NC or even Chattanooga, TN, they all have an interstate that runs through – not just beside but through – their Cities,” Davis said. “And most of them have multiple.”
A project of the magnitude of the Memorial Parkway- I-565 Interchange would have an effect in both impact and cost. It would fall somewhere in the ballpark of $300 million but would ease congestion, shorten commute times and give Huntsville another very important tool in its economic development toolkit.
“The Memorial Parkway-I-565 Interchange is the heartbeat of our transportation network,” Davis said. “For most, whether local or regional users of the road system, this Interchange is part of the daily commute. We continue to work on developing solutions for this portion of our network so that it does not negatively affect our future success and quality of life.”
Funding – as is typical – would be the primary hurdle to seeing this project realized. A project of this scope would require both federal and state dollars, which seem especially hard to come by considering national infrastructure spending has been on the decline for the past decade.
“Thankfully, Alabama has exceptional advocates in Washington who are willing to go to bat for projects with this type of positive impact,” Davis said. “President Trump and Congress are correct to focus on opportunities to better fund transportation infrastructure nationally.”
Northern Bypass (SR 255)
Designed to be part of Huntsville’s future “loop road,” the Northern Bypass is currently being developed in two phases: East and West of North Memorial Parkway. Once complete, the bypass will provide connectivity from US Hwy 72 (east) to Interstate I-565 (west) and provide connectivity to access job centers like Chase Industrial Park, North Huntsville Industrial Park, Cummings Research Park, and Redstone Arsenal while also providing opportunity for future growth.
As Davis puts it: “Since announcing the new phase of the Northern Bypass, our North Huntsville Industrial Park is nearly filled to capacity.”
The emerging North Huntsville Industrial Park is home to Facebook, Toyota Motor Manufacturing and Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Davis says a huge contributing factor for that success is the Northern Bypass.
“We’re able to tell potential industry that the infrastructure is being built. It’s funded,” Davis said. “By finally being able to fund and construct the Northern Bypass Extension to US 231, industry has the confidence to further invest in North Huntsville Industrial Park. Once completed, the extension provides connectivity between I-565 and US 231 for quick travel of both goods and the needed workforce.”
The Northern Bypass project is a great example of how investing in infrastructure aides in creating new jobs and opportunity. With the tremendous growth in North Huntsville Industrial Park, Davis says the City is now seeing renewed interest in the Northern part of Huntsville in the form of hotels, residential and commercial projects
East Arsenal Connector
You might have heard this one referred to as the “Southern Bypass” and just like the Northern Bypass, this road would be essential to Huntsville’s eventual loop road, providing a corridor from I-565 to southeast Huntsville.
Why all the talk about loop roads? In short, they allow cities to provide high capacity alternate routes for commuters and large truck traffic, allowing communities to maintain livability and healthy commerce within its local road network.
For Huntsville, the East Arsenal Connector becomes especially critical in the coming years as Memoria Parkway begins to reach capacity. In essence, a southern bypass would free up space for commuters, moving drivers onto a different thoroughfare who, for example, might be coming from Research Park or Redstone Arsenal and headed home to Lacey Springs or Cullman.
Adding capacity to I-565
Another crucial project on the City’s radar –
In April of 2019, Governor Ivey announced funding to cost effectively widen I-565 for about seven miles between County Line Road and Interstate 65.
To ease congestion, additional widening between County Line Road and Research Park Blvd must be considered to realize Huntsville’s long-term strategy of managing growth.
Leave it to Davis to find the perfect attention-grabbing descriptor.
When he refers to the ‘heartbeat’ interstate he’s talking about I-65.
On the state level, it connects the four largest cities of Alabama, winding south from the ocean to the heart of Tennessee.
“President Eisenhower gave us the four-lane interstate (I-65) and with the exception of a few segments in Birmingham and Montgomery, the state of Alabama hasn’t touched it since it was built in the 1950s. There aren’t yet enough federal funds coming to the State to expand it.”
Too much of a good thing?
All the talk about growth begs the question: How much is too much?
The adjectives that best describe Huntsville’s approach to growth under Mayor Battle’s administration are ‘smart’ and ‘measured.’ If you’ve heard the Mayor say those words once, you’ve heard them a thousand times.
It’s a philosophy that’s drilled into the very fiber of the City of Huntsville’s culture.
Both Davis and Mayor Battle recall a time in Huntsville’s history where two visions competed: Growth vs. no growth.
“In the 1980s, there was a big movement against I-565,” Mayor Battle said. “Can you imagine where Huntsville would be today if there were no I-565?”
Even the creation of Cecil Ashburn Drive, a critical connector between Hampton Cove and Jones Valley in South Huntsville, met some initial resistance.
As legend has it, a local editorial even called for the firing of Dallas Fanning for his vision of building Cecil, a road that was ultimately so well utilized and pivotal in the growth of Hampton Cove that it is currently under expansion.
It all ties back to leaving a place “better than you found it,” that initial sage advice Fanning offered Davis.
Mayor Battle and Davis are on a clear path to do just that. Adapting and growing. Adding not just jobs but people and new ideas – one road at a time.