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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
As far back as the Bronze age, roads have been a symbol of the strength of a place and a good omen for the health of a community.
To Dennis Madsen, the City of Huntsville’s Manager of Urban and Long Range Planning, roads represent prosperity, and a well-designed network of roads is just as critical today.
“At the end of the day, anywhere a road goes is somewhere where you can conduct a transaction and support business,” Madsen said. “It’s not happenstance that wherever you build an interchange, businesses pop up around it.”
It’s not all about business, though.
Huntsville’s Mayor Tommy Battle recalls a conversation shortly after the South Memorial Parkway overpasses were completed in 2018. He spoke with a Huntsville commuter, one of the 100,000 plus who drive into Huntsville daily for work.
“This gentleman told me that thanks to the new overpass at Lilly Flag and Byrd Spring, he saves 30 minutes each day on his commute,” Mayor Battle said. “That’s 2.5 hours per week. I’d suggest that time is just as much a part of your quality of life as anything else we can do.”
RESTORE OUR ROADS
Huntsville, projected to be the largest City in the State of Alabama in the next ten years, has been pulsing with population growth and industry, securing the nation’s most coveted job-creating projects like the Mazda-Toyota Manufacturing Plant, Polaris, and GE Aviation just to name a few.
To prepare Huntsville for continued success, Huntsville’s leaders continue to look toward innovative infrastructure approaches to keep ahead of this economic growth.
Restore our Roads, Mayor Battle’s $250 million cost-sharing initiative established in 2014 between the City of Huntsville and the State of Alabama, aimed to do just that – speed up and fund critical road projects in North Alabama.
Nine priority road projects – from the upcoming Northern Bypass extension to the now completed South Memorial Parkway Overpasses – were identified by the City and State as the first regional road priorities to benefit from the one of its kind collaboration to improve roadway infrastructure.
The effort has succeeded in its goal to raise necessary funds, and now produces around $25 million per year for critical infrastructure projects. Much of the roadwork on those nine major Restore our Roads projects are now in full swing.
Huntsville residents and commuters are seeing…and experiencing… the results of this planning on area roadways in the form of construction work, orange cones and congestion.
“The good news is we’re building roads, and the bad news is we’re building roads,” Mayor Battle said. “There’s often temporary pain for long term gain.”
Sitting in his Fountain Circle office between meetings, Shane Davis, the Mayor’s Urban Development Director for the City of Huntsville, rewinds the clock for us. Taking us back to 2013 and to a Huntsville that foresaw tremendous growth and a major roadblock – infrastructure development.
We said, ‘let’s not be like other cities and say, ‘that’s a federal or state problem, and tell our citizens – it’s not our problem,’” Davis said. “This administration has said we’re not going to do that. We want to be a part of the solution instead of just complaining about it.”
Davis says the administration started with the mindset of creating new jobs and opportunity for citizens but also realized that the plan needed a solution for infrastructure needs.
And in a nutshell, that was the purpose of the Restore Our Roads one-cent sales tax increase.
The majority of the projects identified as Restore our Roads priorities were state roads, in the State of Alabama’s purview for maintenance and development, but the funding to get the projects off the ground was not there.
The Mayor’s emphasis on roads ties back to a central theme of his administration: jobs.
“If a community aims to be a regional employment center, you have to have a good ecosystem of roads so people can get to stores, jobs, factories and get back home safely and efficiently.”
Enter Restore our Roads.
AHEAD OF THE CURVE
Around Huntsville’s City Hall, the philosophy on road development can be summarized in three words: collaboration, innovation and forward-thinking.
On collaboration from Mayor Battle: “In government, there is a place to be competitive, and there is a place to be collaborative. You want to be competitive because you want good things to happen to your community, but you’ve got to also look at the forest instead of the individual trees. There is a multiplier effect for jobs no matter if that job lands in Huntsville, in Muscle Shoals, Florence, Henagar or Jasper.”
On innovation from Davis: “We knew the growth was coming. We were finding success at recruiting jobs, and we didn’t want that to interfere with Huntsville’s quality of life. We knew that by the time it got to be 2019/2020, if we weren’t ahead of the curve, all this good stuff we were doing to provide people upward mobility and jobs would have this backlash of congestion and less quality of life. We said we want to be ahead of that, and the Mayor led us with that vision.”
On forward-thinking from Madsen: “If you look at a lot of the other regions that struggle with congestion, a big part of it is because they did not implement meaningful transit in time. If you wait until you really, really need it, it can be difficult and expensive to build out.”
Road projects, within the broader road network, are kind of like puzzle pieces. Each distinct project should fit together to form a complete picture. A roadmap, if you will.
The City of Huntsville’s roadmap for building and enhancing an efficient road network is a central component of the City’s recently completed Big Picture master plan.
Madsen, a chief architect of the plan, says the City approaches road development in two ways: responsive and predictive.
“Responsive is saying here is where we are seeing growth, so how do we shift our infrastructure spending or focus it to support that existing growth.”
The second approach applies a more strategic method. It asks: What’s best for the City overall in terms of cost and projects that will benefit the most people moving forward.
Speaking on these approaches, Madsen, who lived in Atlanta before being hired by the City in 2012, credits Mayor Battle for a major philosophical shift in infrastructure development.
“While outward expansion had been the norm, under Mayor Battle’s leadership, the City has said, ‘Expanding outward is ok, but we are leaving behind a lot of existing property and infrastructure that we could be taking better advantage of.’ It’s also exploring: how do we support and encourage redevelopment in existing areas?”
According to Madsen, it’s more cost-effective to reuse sites rather than to continue to build farther and farther out.
THE MAGIC ‘18-MINUTE COMMUTE’
Curtis Vincent, North Region Engineer for the Alabama Department of Transportation or ALDOT lives in Guntersville and commutes to Huntsville daily. Vincent has heard feedback from locals about increasing congestion. He is quick to put things in perspective.
“Huntsville is one of the largest cities in the country as far as landmass,” Vincent said. “If you look at our transportation issues compared to other cities with this population, we really don’t have any. It’s all a matter of where you are and how you look at it. We’ve got growing pains, but we have it pretty good as far as transportation.”
That comparison Vincent is making is key.
When touting why Huntsville is an ideal place to live – and locate your business – Mayor Battle will often lead with the quick commute as a major selling point. To get from one side of the city to another takes around 18 minutes.
According to Madsen, there are two primary ways to maintain – or even quicken – Huntsville’s ‘magic 18-minute commute.’
“First, you can widen the roads,” Madsen said. “Second, you can encourage a shorter distance between employment and housing. You aren’t discouraging folks who want to live out farther or have more of a suburban lifestyle, but you want to provide more opportunities for folks to live close to work.”
Another name for what Madsen is describing is mixed-use development, and it’s not only what’s ‘trendy’ nationwide, it’s the way humans have built communities for thousands of years.
“Cities have always been designed around pedestrians,” Madsen said. “It’s only in the post-World War II period in the U.S. that we got away from that. After the war, we were building highways all over the place, making it easy to pull those uses apart. We’re recognizing long term the infrastructure is very difficult to sustain because it’s very expensive and not great for the environment or for people to spend that much time alone in their cars every day.”
Madsen says Huntsville’s “Village of Providence” is a shining example of mixed-use development success.
“You can work there, go to school there, have your lunch there, you can hang out in the park there, walk on the greenway and live there. That’s all within a fairly small area.”
Madsen is quick to point out this doesn’t mean Huntsville shouldn’t focus on cars and high capacity roads as the solution to transportation needs.
For Madsen, it’s all about offering residents “transportation choice.”
Battle says he often hears from concerned residents who are fearful Huntsville could encounter the same infrastructure issues now being experienced by communities like Atlanta and Nashville.
To those folks, Mayor Battle provides reassurance. His City team is on top of it.
The third term Mayor identifies one characteristic he thinks will prevent Huntsville from falling into the same growth traps as the Rocket City’s larger counterparts.
“A lot of people – they come in and say ‘Oh, we see your growth, and we think you’re going to get to be like so and so.’ We’re not. We’re not going to get greedy. I think some of those communities took everything that was thrown at them without any thought of how they were going to be able to manage it. We work on managing every job we have.”
“Everyone has seen the orange cones, Mayor Battle said. “They’ve seen them out in full force for the last two years. It’s easy to get orange cone leery after a little while, but we’ve got to keep growing our road system to keep up with our growing population and quality of life.”
The goal, for Mayor Battle, is clear.
“People talk all the time about us being the biggest city in Alabama,” he said. “I don’t care much about being the biggest, I want Huntsville to be the best city in Alabama.”
Next up: We’ll explore, in detail, the process of designing and constructing a major road project, answering the question, “Why is this road taking so long to complete?”