A day after the Alabama Department of Transportation director told more than 500 Eufaula residents that he would move forward with the controversial widening of North Eufaula Avenue, Gov. Robert Bentley threw his complete support behind the project.
"After much work and compromise, the Alabama Department of Transportation has reached a solution to solve the traffic issues on North Eufaula Avenue with little to no interruption to the historical nature of the area," Bentley said Wednesday in a statement. "I fully support the Department of Transportation's decision."
The governor's decision was not good news in Eufaula.
"We are greatly disappointed," said Bob Powers, president of the Eufaula City Council. "It contradicts a statement he made to the delegation of Eufaula on three separate occasions. ... We have not had any courtesy call from the governor."
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Doug Purcell, retired executive director of the Historic Chattahoochee Commission and an Eufaula resident, said the governor’s decision to support the widening project was completely out of character with his assurances to Eufaula community leaders in three meetings with him over the last several months.
“He has been disingenuous in his discussions, with the City of Eufaula, which has emboldened ALDOT Director John Cooper, who recently reneged on an offer to delay this project for one year,” Purcell said. “Cooper’s legacy, as a member of Governor Bentley’s cabinet, will be the destruction of one of Alabama’s most unique and picturesque towns — all for the purpose of speeding Georgia traffic through Eufaula so motorists can spend extra time in the Florida panhandle.”
Bentley's support comes on the heels of a contentious meeting Tuesday night in Eufaula in which ALDOT Director John R. Cooper did not back away from the four-lane plan. Many of the residents opposed to the plan that would make it a four-lane road spoke out after ALDOT officials outlined the project.
Bids are expected to be received Dec. 5, with construction beginning later in the month. ALDOT has set an April 1, 2015, deadline for the project to be completed.
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 at Tuesday night's meeting, 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.
In the face of stiff opposition, ALDOT outlined its plan in great detail.
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.
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.
Bentley said in his release the traffic was his biggest concern.
"There is a traffic problem in Eufaula, and a solution has been needed for many years to resolve the backup on North Eufaula Avenue," the governor said in his statement. "I have personally visited Eufaula and met with residents and local officials on the issue. My Department of Transportation has also been working to find a solution in conjunction with the locals in Eufaula."
Cost has all but ruled out a bypass, ALDOT Chief Engineer Ronnie Baldwin told the crowd on Tuesday.
If a seven-mile bypass were built today, it would cost $120 million, Baldwin 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.