'Innovative financing' sought for Decatur/Hartselle bypass
By Catherine Godbey
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For North Alabama leaders and transportation officials, a Decatur/Hartselle bypass represents a dream that now appears obtainable.
Labeled as Veterans Parkway by local officials, the proposed road would connect Alabama 67 to Alabama 20. Stretching more than 17 miles, the four-lane expressway would have interchanges at Alabama 20, Alabama 24, Danville Road, U.S. 31 and Interstate 65.
In July, the Metropolitan Planning Organization approved the draft Transportation Improvement Plan, which included funding for the first two phases of Veterans Parkway.
Plans call for preliminary engineering for Phase 1, which runs from Danville Road to U.S. 31, to occur in 2008 with right of way acquisition taking place in 2010.
Preliminary engineering for Phase 2, connecting U.S. 31 to Interstate 65, is scheduled for 2011.
If handled solely by the DOT, Johnny Harris, Division 1 engineer, expects completion of the bypass to take more than a decade. Local leaders aren't satisfied with this time frame and are searching for alternate ways to expedite the project.
"We call it innovative financing where federal and private money are used on the roadway," said Dewayne Hellums, director of transportation for North-central Alabama Regional Council of Governments.
"The partnership would help to get the road built quicker."
Rick Volk, chief executive officer of New Century Transportation LLC, oversees the group of investors — consisting of Goldman, Sachs & Co., Volkert & Associates and United Toll Systems LLC — interested in privately financing the bypass.
"We have an agreement with the city to finance, design, build and operate Veterans Parkway as a toll road," Volk said. "Whether or not we can actually build the bypass as a toll road is dependent upon approvals from ALDOT and the municipalities."
According to Hellums, DOT's approval depends on issues such as maintenance, enforcement and financing of the toll road.
If approved by DOT, Volk estimates a completion time of three to four years for the $300 million bypass once construction begins. Volk said his team first would construct the Alabama 20 to I- 65 leg to meet the higher demand of traffic in that area.
Kyle backs plan
Mayor Don Kyle supports the idea of Veterans Parkway as a private venture and anticipates the economic development it will incite.
"Historically speaking, the main advantage in opening up a transportation corridor is that it allows for additional development," Harris said.
Local leaders believe building a major artery through North Alabama will spur a tremendous industrial growth in the outlying portions of Morgan and Lawrence counties.
In addition to increasing economic development, the bypass will decrease congestion on existing corridors, specifically Beltline Road. Presently, motorists and tractor-trailers encounter 15 traffic lights on the six-mile stretch of the Beltline from U.S. 31 to Alabama 20.
"Heavy truck traffic on the Beltline is extremely difficult on the road surface," Kyle said. "The outer loop would alleviate traffic volume and the need for street repairs."
Morgan County Commission Chairman John Glasscock added that the bypass would benefit Hartselle-area residents who work at local plants by cutting their travel time.
Veterans Parkway, however, poses disadvantages to others.
"Some businesses like fast food restaurants don't want to see traffic diverted," Harris said. "Also private landowners typically don't want a major traffic corridor near their property."
According to Robert Lawyer, the bypass is planned to cut directly through his property.
"From the standpoint of a taxpayer and a homeowner, I'm totally opposed to the bypass," Lawyer said. "This is a horrible waste of money when right now they are expanding the Beltline ... I also have no interest in relocating. This is a nice community and a wonderful place to live."
Lees and Janice Griffith, Hartselle residents who live close to the proposed bypass, fear the connecting road will affect their quality of life.
"I am not in favor of it," Janice Griffith said. "We are both retired and have a peaceful place out here. They don't need to come out into the country."
Currently in the environmental study phase, DOT researchers detected underground caves and sinkholes on the west side of the bypass, which will affect the proposed route.
DOT scheduled public meetings in the upcoming weeks to discuss Veterans Parkway with interested parties. After the meetings, DOT will pinpoint the placement of the bypass.
Volk expects the finalized environmental review next year and hopes a DOT approval accompanies it.
The state Department of Transportation will host public hearings to discuss the route of Veterans Parkway on these dates.
Aug. 30 — West Morgan High School cafeteria, 261 S. Greenway Drive, Trinity, 5-7 p.m.
Sept. 4 — Sparkman Civic Center gymnasium, 406 Nance Ford Road S.W., Hartselle, 5-7 p.m.
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