To ALDOT, from Helena: Send help — Shelby County suburb plagued by chronically clogged two-lane roads
HELENA – When it comes to the explosive growth that has been underway in North Shelby County since the late 1980s, the City of Helena is often overlooked.
Yet, it has been a significant component of that growth.
It is the kind of growth Alabama’s leaders are encouraging in other parts of the state – people relocating from other states and taking jobs in the area to raise their families. In theory, that builds upon the existing tax base, and that along with the increased economic activity improves the quality of life for everyone statewide.
It is also the kind of growth that as is the case in many places, the government has been woefully ill-equipped to adequately meet the transportation needs required as a result of it.
Helena along with Pelham and Alabaster to the east and southeast have been part of the second phase of the Birmingham metropolitan area’s southern suburban expansion. (The first phase having been Homewood, Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook and Hoover in the 1970s and 1980s.)
However, unlike Pelham and Alabaster, Helena has felt the brunt of the area’s growing pains given its lack of proximity to a major thoroughfare. (Pelham and Alabaster are served by Interstate 65 and U.S. Highway 31.)
For most of the last three decades, there has been a lot of talk from the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) to do something about it. Unfortunately, that talk has not been followed by any significant action.
Currently, the estimated nearly 20,000 residents in Helena are served by a series of two-lane Shelby County roads to the northwest, east and southeast and by Alabama Highway 261 to its northeast. Highway 261 offers Helena the most direct route to I-65, Hoover and Birmingham.
Given that it is the most direct route, it is also the most heavily traveled and therefore, the most backed up. It has gotten incrementally worse since the 1990s. That has not been just a disruption for Helena residents, but for those in adjacent Pelham and Hoover as well.
It’s not unheard of for the eight-mile trip from Helena to the Valleydale Road-Interstate 65 interchange, or vice-versa, to take 45 minutes should that trip take place during rush hour, or when school traffic is underway.
Still, ALDOT has punted time after time after time on improving Highway 261.
“You get to an election year, and the big projects get green-flagged, and the smaller projects – ‘Eh, you know – I’m going to hold you up a little while,’ because you know, politics,” Helena Mayor Mark Hall told Yellowhammer News in an interview earlier this week.
According to Hall, the city’s hands are tied on attempting to go at it on its own given the county and state’s ownership of the roads. However, given those roads are maintained by the state and county, it does allow for federal funds to be used on improvements.
“The big difficulty here in Helena is both the main roads that come through here are state road and county roads,” he explained. “We don’t have jurisdiction over them. We don’t have the funds to spend $30 million. Not on a good day could we come up with $30 million to four-lane a road. We got a $12 million-a-year budget. So, $30 million is out of the question for us. The good thing is they are Shelby County and ALDOT-owned, which can get those federal funds – which we cannot. Getting them to actually break ground and do something is like pulling teeth from a 90-year-old man. He doesn’t have any.”
All hope is not lost, according to Hall. The long-stalled effort to widen Alabama 261 is showing some signs of life now. Hall said recently ALDOT has moved that project into its top-10 list of highway priorities.
“We got it back at the top of the list,” he added. “I feel like that is progress just to get it there. To get the funding mechanism ironed out is the next big deal. That’s what we’re working on now. We’re supposed to meet with [ALDOT] in the coming months again, you know get everybody back together and get this [memorandum of understanding] ironed out where we can at least have the funding mechanism agreed to, whether or not the money is there or not.”
The Helena mayor also said he was also pushing for a meeting with Gov. Kay Ivey, but admitted it would be difficult given she was in the middle of a gubernatorial campaign.
Given the project also has the cities of nearby Pelham and Hoover promoting it, Hall added he was optimistic about the prospects of it becoming a reality.
“I’m working as hard as I can with our council to push this 261 project to the front,” he said. “We got an MOU in the works with the cities of Hoover, Pelham and the Shelby County highway department, along with ALDOT to kick-start this 261 project. And I’m very hopeful this time that we can all sit down at a table and sign an agreement to get it kick-started and going. And I’m very pleased with [ALDOT Director John] Cooper for putting it back on top of the project list because he very well could have told me, ‘Sorry, buddy.’”