I-65 congestion up, but no relief in sight

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Oct. 19—Transportation officials and motorists agree traffic congestion along the Interstate 65 corridor in north Alabama has increased significantly, but state officials say funding for widening the highway remains at least a decade away.

"They could add a lane in each direction from Nashville to Birmingham, and it would still be congested," said Falkville Mayor Ken Winkles. "We've had discussions with (the Alabama Department of Transportation). They are aware of the issue."

ALDOT spokesman Seth Burkett said widening I-65 through Morgan and Limestone is not on the drawing board although there is awareness of areas along I-65 with congestion.

"The segment in Morgan County where traffic is the heaviest and where a third lane in each direction would be most beneficial is from Exit 334 (Alabama 67 at Priceville) to the river, and continuing on into Limestone County to Exit 340 (Alabama 20/I-565 at Decatur/Huntsville)," he said. "The Tennessee River bridges are a major obstacle in widening this segment. The only way lanes can be added is by replacing the bridges. However, there isn't funding to replace the bridges at this time."

He said the department is "preparing a rehabilitation project to cost-effectively extend their useful lifespan, which could push the need for replacement many years down the road. The cost of rehabilitation will be a fraction of the cost of replacement, which would certainly cost in the hundreds of millions."

ALDOT data shows Morgan and Limestone counties are seeing more vehicles annually.

Along I-65 in Morgan County north of Upper River River, the annual average daily traffic count in both directions was 47,391 vehicles in 2018 and 50,420 in 2021, an increase of 3,029 vehicles per day.

The traffic count just south of Alabama 36 near Hartselle has increased from 40,773 vehicles daily in 2018 to 43,450 last year. In 2015, the number was only 36,190, or 7,260 fewer than in 2021, the most recent year for which traffic data is available.

In Limestone County, I-65 traffic flow just south of Interstate 565 is even more startling. In 2015, the annual average daily traffic count was 35,450. Three years later in 2018, the number had reached 47,391, and last year it averaged 50,420, an increase of 14,970 in daily traffic count in six years.

However the the congestion eases farther north on I-65. ALDOT statistics show just south of the Tennessee line on I-65 there were 21,402 vehicles on an average day in 2021. In 2018, the number was 19,749 and in 2015, the traffic flow totaled 27,536 on an average day. ALDOT had no explanation for the fluctuation.

Motorists interviewed last week said they are noticing the increased congestion in the Morgan and Limestone portions of I-65.

"Everything is growing up here. It's booming with the new businesses and houses," said Bobby Minor of Jasper. "I think it needs to have another lane added. There seems to be more congestion every time I am up here." The 68-year-old says he travels through the area four or five times a year.

Shane Benefield, 33, of Columbia, Tennessee, agreed with Minor.

"I'm seeing more traffic than I did last year," he said. "Since the COVID pandemic is over I guess, I'm seeing an increase on all of the roads."

Benefield, a native of Limestone County, said he is constantly adjusting his speed driving through north Alabama on the interstate. "Now that COVID is over, people are driving more. High gas prices aren't stopping anybody." He was traveling to Foley to pick up a truck.

Caleb Oliver of Kingsford, Michigan, said he makes an annual trip south and "I have noticed more traffic, not just here but between Birmingham and Montgomery. We were at a dead stop today between Birmingham and Montgomery."

One commercial truck driver, Jeff Payne of Chattanooga, said he is not certain adding lanes in each direction is the answer. He said the "move-over law," population growth and distracted drivers are the three biggest factors for the additional traffic delays and congestion.

Payne, 58, who says he is usually hauling lumber, said he travels the area's interstate about 30 times a year.

"I loved it when the pandemic was keeping people off the roads, but now we're not seeing a decline because of high fuel costs like we thought we would," Payne said. "I-65 is the beltway to the South. It's a good route, but I'm seeing quite a bit more traffic in recent years. It's the main route to the beach and that increases traffic volume especially in the summer months.

"The more laws you add, the more congestion your traffic will be. The move-over law is great. I understand that it is safety first. We all want to be safe. People need to pay attention better. If they see a vehicle along side the road or first-responders, they need to use common sense and move over. We don't need a law telling us to move over."

State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and state Rep. Proncey Robertson, R-Mount Hope, both support adding lanes on I-65 in the area but didn't offer much hope for plans. They both called the project "long range," at least 10 to 15 years away from plans being in place. Funding is the main reason, they said. Interstate 65 becomes three lanes southbound at the Blount-Cullman county lines.

"Without a doubt we have more congestion than we did several years ago," Orr said. "Funding is an issue."

He said a beltline around northern Birmingham, Shelby County congestion, a Mobile Bay bridge and even a third bridge over the Tennessee River are projects in front of adding lanes along I-65.

"I-65 widening is a long-range plan; it will be many, many years in coming," he said. "We've got to take care of the crisis areas. I-565 and Shelby County need work, a third river bridge in Decatur is needed."

Robertson said the Rebuild Alabama gas tax revenue helped pay for three-laning parts of I-565.

"I'd love to see (I-65) widened," Robertson said. "There is always a need for road improvements, but we're not going to get it anytime soon.

"When you bring people to the area because of jobs, that is good, but you have to have the infrastructure to keep up with the growth. Everyone wants growth but you have to keep up with it. ... Widening I-65 is more than just cutting another lane. It is widening the bridges, shoulders. It's a major undertaking. It will cost about $500,000 per lane per mile. If you started today, four-laning through Morgan and Limestone counties would probably take five years."

Robertson said the gas tax generates about $310 million a year.

But the increased I-65 traffic has some positives. Businesses and towns along the corridor are seeing an increase in sales.

Winkles said his town's tax revenue is up because of sales at the two truck stops in town. "I've seen a big increase in traffic in the past five years. A lot more people are living up here now because of the new industries coming in."

He said when he took office in 2016 the town's budget was $1.9 million. This year it is $2.6 million, he said.

"Our sales tax revenue is up about $200,000 a year since I took office," he said. "Most all of that is coming from Love's and Marathon out at the interstate. Those places stay busy."

mike.wetzel@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.