GUEST COLUMN | Eastern Bypass makes no sense
Eastern Bypass plan is archaic and doesn't fit with Tuscaloosa's sustainable plan for area's future
Published: Sunday, May 6, 2012 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 5, 2012 at 11:53 p.m.
TUSCALOOSA | In the wake of last year's tornadoes, the Friends of Hurricane Creek ask our local leaders to plan with consideration of the importance of our existing neighborhoods, community bonds and wild, natural areas rather than an outdated definition of “growth” as bases for our city's future. We are inspired and encouraged by the forward thinking represented by the planning efforts that have taken place since 2011's devastation, and we look forward to that type of planning being implemented throughout the city and county.
Unfortunately, a fossil stands in our way. Known as the Eastern Bypass, this relic is a dated creation of the past century that is still being taken seriously. The bypass is a model for sprawl and decentralization; for increased reliance upon the personal automobile resulting in more pollution and numerous other well-documented side effects.
The Tuscaloosa Forward plan, on the other hand, is a model for planning healthy, safe, accessible, connected and sustainable communities.
The disconnect between the Tuscaloosa Forward plan and the Eastern Bypass plan to move some parts of Tuscaloosa backward is too large to ignore.
The Alabama Department of Transportation has concluded that the best route for the bypass is through the heart of Hurricane Creek Park's unique M-Bend area. It crosses the creek twice in the M-Bend with a total of five bridges (refer to the 1998 Environmental Impact Statement or “EIS”).
This continues to be the official position, even though this route will irreversibly damage a public park, displace hundreds of local residents — many of whom were impacted by the 2011 tornadoes — drastically alter noise and pollution levels, permanently divide communities and possibly even impact the flow and health of Hurricane Creek itself.
The half-hearted process by which
ALDOT has “engaged” the community on this massive and costly project suggests that some would prefer to keep the public uninformed. For example, the EIS — the document which purports to analyze the available routes and justify the one chosen — was not available online for 14 years. It was made available within the past month only after a private citizen, a local mother of three, contacted the Federal Highway Administration and questioned the legality of not having it available.
ALDOT has held several “public forums,” the past two of which were scheduled during Christmas and spring breaks, respectively.
At the “forums” the information was presented in such an arcane, disjointed way that even the few community members in attendance continue to be confused about the exact location, impact and purpose of the Eastern Bypass.
Most other states attempting such vast transportation projects maintain Web sites with extensive information, maps and updates for the taxpayers who fund them. ALDOT does not.
Given the lukewarm attempts to inform and educate the public to date, we have little hope that ALDOT will change tactics when this bypass is actually being built.
In addition to the changes brought by the passage of time since the 1998 route decision, two major changes have occurred which cannot be ignored. These changes have rendered stale and irrelevant those portions of the Environmental Impact Statement which pertain to segments of the bypass in the Hurricane Creek area.
A 249-acre public park was established by the Tuscaloosa Parks and Recreation Authority for the specific purpose of providing a natural outdoor experience for the public and for protecting the spectacular M-Bend.
How can families enjoy the outdoors while trucks and traffic from a 4-lane highway whizz overhead? Imagining that you can have both a bypass and a natural park is the kind of dangerous wishful thinking that will turn the bypass, a transportation relic, into backward reality.
Another game-changer was the 2011 tornado, which destroyed countless acres of mixed woodlands and removed shady creek cover from two linear miles of the stream past the Holt-Peterson Bridge over Hurricane Creek.
Natural conditions have been altered to such a degree that the analyses in the 14-year-old EIS are no longer applicable and must be re-done.
The current route disproportionately affects lower-income residents of Tuscaloosa County, while positive benefits tend to accrue for higher-income residents of the area north of the river, a situation which generates hostility and a sense of division.
The fact that some must be “wronged” by a project which purports to be a tool for “economic development” is ironic and difficult to stomach.
The fact that those recently traumatized by the tornado are next in line to be traumatized by the bypass verges on the tragic.
This part of the city, especially the Holt and Cottondale communities, will resemble the least appealing parts of Atlanta, where continuous traffic, noise pollution and automotive exhaust characterize the milieu.
In addition, the families visiting loved ones buried at Memorial Park will have to contend with their new status as scenery for a regional truck route.
Hurricane Creek has long been used for swimming, boating and fishing by local residents.
It also has a powerful historical value for local residents who refer to its peace and tranquility as a “treasure unique to our state.”
Turning the creek watershed into a trucking route will undoubtedly affect its status as a local recreational treasure enjoyed by residents who may not be able to afford more costly sources of recreation.
Our leaders have committed to a green recovery and a Tuscaloosa that moves “forward,” which requires letting go of the fossil.
Let's make sure that the Holt, Cottondale and East Tuscaloosa's communities and environment are included in this goal for healthy, connected, sustainable and naturally beautiful areas.
Laurie Johns is the president and Alina Coryell is a board member of The Friends of Hurricane Creek, a 501c3 organization dedicated to education, recreation, and preservation of the Hurricane Creek watershed and its tributaries. Readers can visit their web site at www.hurricane-