Alabama officials moving ahead with plans to widen historic North Eufaula Avenue

Alabama Department of Transportation officials were clear Tuesday night: the state plans to move forward next month with the widening of a historic stretch of North Eufaula Avenue amid strong opposition from many in this community and region.

ALDOT Director John R. Cooper said prior to the meeting that the agency plans to take bids in a few weeks and complete the project by April 1, just before the 50th anniversary of the city's annual tour of homes.

"As the transportation director, I have decided to go forward with this project," Cooper said.

As determined as Cooper is, those opposed are equally as stubborn.

It appears the matter will end up in court. The Eufaula Heritage Association has hired the Southern Environmental Law Center of Atlanta. Two attorneys from the law center were present, including senior attorney Brian L. Gist.

The Eufaula City Council voted on Monday to pursue litigation. The council unanimously passed a resolution authorizing City Attorney Courtney Potthoff to seek any and all legal remedies available to stop ALDOT's proposed project.

"It is pretty broad," Mayor Jack Tibbs said of the resolution. "We do not know what actions are going to need to be taken. But we have to have a stop gap."

ALDOT outlined its plan in great detail, but many of the 500 people in the Eufaula Community Center didn't want to hear it. Almost everyone spoke in opposition to the project. Elected officials and citizens also hammered away at Cooper.

State Sen. Billy Beasley and longtime Eufaula resident Ann Smith questioned Cooper on how the state could proceed in the face of unified opposition.

"Since when do you completely ignore the wishes of an elected city council and elected representatives for the engineers to do a project they have wanted to do for a very long time?" asked Smith, who has lived on North Eufaula Avenue since 1966.

Cooper said the city turned down a compromise that would have delayed the project for a year.

Doug Prater has lived in Eufaula for more than 40 years and he spoke in favor of the widening project. He suggested that if it were put to a vote, more citizens would be in support of it than against it.

"This is a passionate thing they are fighting for," he said. "We have tried to have a bypass for many years and some people in this town have their heads stuck in the sand."

ALDOT plans to widen seven-tenths of a mile on historic North Eufaula Avenue from two to four lanes. The widening proposal would complete the 120-mile stretch of U.S. 431 from Interstate 85 in Opelika south to Dothan.

"We understand the position you have," said ALDOT Chief Engineer Ronnie Baldwin. "We understand you don't want one inch taken out."

The compromise, Baldwin said, was 11-foot lanes rather than the normal 12 feet. It will include curbs with no gutters.

This is not a new issue. In 1989, the state transportation department began looking at the possibility of a bypass. In 2005, serious consideration was given to a bypass on the western side. It never happened because of opposition to routing the traffic around downtown.

If a seven-mile bypass were built today, it would cost $120 million, Baldwin said. "We don't have $120 million to spend on a bypass," he said.

ALDOT expects to have an information meeting for contractors interested on bidding on the project later this month. It is expected to cost between $668,392 to $816,923, according to bid information on the ALDOT website. One of the concerns is taking six feet off the median will damage the live oaks, magnolias and elms growing in the median. There are 81 such trees in the impacted area, according to a study by ALDOT.

Jim Martin, president of the Eufaula-Randolph Neighborhood Association, said the project was ill-advised.

"North Eufaula Avenue is a zoned residential district," he said. "... We do not want a four-lane highway coming through our neighborhood. The devastating effect it will have on livability, historic integrity and property values is priceless."

Eufaula pulled out the big guns Tuesday night bringing in Bass Anglers Sportsman Society founder Ray Scott and former Auburn football coach Pat Dye to speak against the project. Dye, who regularly drives through Eufaula, called the plan "ridiculous."

"I am here because it is the right thing to do," Dye said. "This is one of the most unique streets in the country. To me, fighting this is a no-brainer."