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franklin county times

Council opposes highway project

Business owners along U.S. 43 in Russellville packed the city council’s auditorium Monday night, many expressing concern about a proposed highway safety plan that they believed would limit access to their businesses.

After hearing from more than a dozen speakers, the council voted 4-2 to oppose an Alabama Department of Transportation plan that would cost anywhere from $5 million to $13 million in safety improvements.

The council pledged support of the plan some time ago, but some had a change of heart as they studied the plan more and heard from business owners who felt the project would limit their accessibility by removing medians and turn lanes along the by-pass.

“This would kill the businesses along the highway,” Councilman Gary Cummings said.

Russellville Mayor Troy Oliver, who voted alongside Councilman Lanny Hubbard to support the plan, argued that nothing had been finalized by the state and he urged council members and business owners to submit ideas and concerns to the state.

“The plan we have right now is just a concept to show where the safety issues are and what we need to address,” Oliver told the crowd before any votes on the matter were cast.

He encouraged businesses to meet with Russellville resident and former ALDOT employee Jim Hitt to look for specific ideas to help their businesses maintain the access they need.

Cummings said the drawings that city officials had already viewed were the final plans.

“This would be paid for by a safety grant so we would have to meet all the requirements they have marked,” he said.

“What you see on that map is what you will get. The only way for us to put a stop to this highway project is for us to vote it down and don’t let it happen.”

Oliver released an email that he received earlier Monday from ALDOT Chief Engineer D.W. Vaughn. In that statement, Vaughn said that opportunities would be presented for businesses to meet with state officials about the plans.

“I understand there is a lot of interest and concern surrounding the planned safety improvement project on US-43 in Russellville. Let me assure you that as the project develops, opportunities for public input into the project design will be provided through public involvement meetings,” Vaughn said via email.

“We have only recently selected a design consultant and we are currently in the process of developing a scope of work and negotiating a fee for the work effort. The first order of work will be to hold a public meeting in Russellville to gain public input. This will be done before any meaningful design work is accomplished.

“To date, all that has been developed is a single design concept. This concept was developed to show that roadway modifications could improve safety to motorists on US-43 in Russellville. Citizen input will assure that our final design maximizes safety to motorists while considering commercial access needs.

“Our project development process is deliberate but sometimes time consuming. We are committed to this project and look forward to working with Russellville on this important transportation issue.”

Many of the business owners and managers that spoke Monday felt that any changes along U.S. 43 would only push traffic through the city, rather than making it easy for people to stop and shop along the highway.

Jim Sibley, who opened Legacy Chevron in 2010, said he had many options as to where he could locate, but chose the store’s site because of its easy accessibility. He said that his business would suffer greatly if motorists were forced to travel down the highway a little further before turning around to visit his store.

“Anything that damages my access costs me money and in return, costs the city money in lost tax revenue,” he said.

Longtime Russellville business owner and developer Paul Bingham said that he already lost one potential major retailer because the proposed plans would not allow the access needed.

“A big company is not going to locate without the access,” he said.

Several others, including Doug Green of Green’s True Value, Russellville Hospital CEO Christine Stewart, Dr. Jeremy Campbell, Mike Vaughn of First Metro Bank, Alan Rhudy of Community Spirit Bank, Robert Hicks of O’Reilly Auto Parts, Dennis Upchurch and Cecil Batchelor of CB&S Bank, and Brad Reeves and Greg Batchelor of Dependable Sporting Goods, all said the current design that they had seen would be crippling to businesses.

Stewart said her initial concern was that motorists would move through Russellville more easily, which would limit where they stopped along the way.

Greg Batchelor said the true secret to a business’ success is based on three things, “location, location, location.”

“With the economy like it is, we don’t need anything else to fight against.”

After hearing from the speakers, Cummings said they “were all experts in business.”

“They know what it takes to have success and what their businesses need,” he said.

When casting his vote against the plan, Councilman Jeff Masterson said that he was confident the state would look for better options than the current rendering, which many feel would eliminate most medians along the highway.

“The state has got an investment already and if they are truly concerned about the traffic safety through Russellville, I think they will look for alternatives.”

Council members William Nale and David Grissom also voted against the plan.

“We all want what is best for the citizens of Russellville, including having the safest roads that we can have,” Grissom said.

“But looking over these plans and looking at the traffic accident reports that we have filed over the years, I don’t think this would do anything but hurt businesses, which in turn hurts the city and the residents who live here.

“We are going to look at doing everything we can to benefit the city and help it grow, but we have to be mindful that one thing always affects another. These plans, as they are, would hurt the city.”

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