Envision a New Future for Decatur

Alternative Location

Located between the Tennessee River and I-65, where Huntsville meets Decatur, is a blank slate of several thousand acres. This is Decatur’s best opportunity for creating a new entrance into the city by starting its urban area at I-65. Done well, a plan for a mixed-use live, work and play development would provide a chance for high value long-term growth.

Unfortunately, the Highway 20 bridge project had an inadequate environmental assessment and limited public input. This led to the use of an outdated plan for Bass Pro to try to address the needs of the corridor and sets up the region to be developed into a disconnected, sprawling area better suited to lower value uses.

We are supportive of safety and access improvements, but we are asking Decatur, the Alabama DOT, and the Federal Highway Administration to adhere to conducting the required legal processes and to re-engage with the community and affected landowners in the area to find a better solution.

Proposed Design

Note the unusual, confusing layout. It was initially designed specifically to serve a now defunct Bass Pro Shop development. If someone wanted to leave the old Racetrac site on the North Side of Highway 20 to get back on I-65, they would head north to the roundabout, go ¾ of the way around it, head south over Highway 20, go ¼ of the way around the roundabout, head back north to Highway 20 and turn right. Today, they can simply turn left on Highway 20.

Potential Bridge Location

Estimated Speeds for New Roads

Roundabout Wrecks Have Engineers Going in Circles

A recent Wall Street Journal article reveals that roundabouts may not be as safe as originally touted, particularly for those who are unfamiliar with driving on them. Additionally, the proposed design will drastically increase the time spent crossing north and south on Highway 20, placing undue hardship on citizens and landowners who need to utilize the land on both sides. The design does little to improve safety or reduce congestion, and inefficiently uses the land by reducing visibility, decreasing existing access and propelling the land toward less valuable forms of development.

Highways Give Way to Homes as Cities Rebuild

Another recent Wall Street Journal article indicates how plans like the one proposed for Highway 20 are outdated and out of touch with the types of development that truly revitalize a city. In several American cities, some of the largest highway projects involve demolition of highways rather than new construction.

“The highways mostly date from the 1950s and 1960s, a time when urban planners envisioned a network of high-speed roads whisking people from suburban homes to downtown jobs. Many are part of the Interstate highway system, which was under construction in those years and today connects cities across the U.S. with nearly 47,000 miles of road.”

“Today, the trend is reversing. Revitalized city centers are drawing new residents and businesses. Some cities now see the highways as ugly concrete monoliths that divide neighborhoods and hinder efforts to create pedestrian-friendly spaces. The roads are also getting old. Maintaining them would cost more than officials are willing to spend.”

Wealthy Millennial Home Buyers Are Trading Sleepy Suburbs for Smaller Houses and Shorter Commutes

As outlined in this article, trends are moving away from traditional suburbs toward walkable live/work/play developments with smaller homes and shorter commutes. The current proposed plan is one that is stuck in the past, rather than looking toward the future.

“The Huelskamps didn’t set out to be poster children for Wealthy Millennial Home Buyers, but in fact their choices nearly perfectly represent what agents say are the trends for this age group. Their choice of a close-in suburb with a short commute, willingness to trade size and space for a walkable area, and rejection of traditional sleepy suburban landscapes are classics of their age cohort. The only way in which they differ: Their brown shingled house needed a small amount of renovation, they said, something many of their contemporaries abhor. These generational habits are so pervasive that they are anointing new areas as ultra-luxury spots and sending some previously desirable locations into a downward price spiral.”

Alternative Design Concepts

Parkway

Due to the upcoming six-laning of I-565 to I-65, an attractive potential alternative is a multi-lane parkway. A simple way to improve traffic and to increase capacity and safety is to six-lane Highway 20, with three lanes heading east out of Decatur and three lanes heading west between I-65, which is even more important now that I-565 is to be six-laned from Wall Triana Hwy to I-65 later this year. Making the single lane bridge over Highway 31 into two lanes is imperative as well for reducing westbound congestion in this corridor.

Six lane roads are safer, more accessible and more attractive, and will increase capacity compared to the current highway or the proposed limited access approach. The value and appeal of the surrounding property would be much higher for homes and businesses, and a parkway would also provide multimodal options for pedestrians and cyclists to use the corridor through the increased connectivity of cross streets for local residential, retail, commercial and farming use.

Partially Elevated Highway

Another option is to raise parts or all of Highway 20 to allow access north and south underneath it instead of having to cross the highway. In this case, the property would not be as valuable for development as with the parkway approach, but this concept does preserve the opportunity for a clear, undisrupted street grid to spur and encourage future development. Likely, there would be two sections raised, one near Calvary Assembly and one near Bibb Garrett Road, with multiple north/south roads going underneath Highway 20 in both places to better distribute traffic throughout the area.

According to nationally recognized transportation engineer and land-use planner, Ian Lockwood, this corridor has great potential to increase Decatur’s competitiveness in attracting new residents and jobs in an orderly, planned, and attractive manner. The poorly designed proposed access plan will likely result in the underutilization of the land and in more suburban sprawl. The design of the proposed interchange and the future segments will stunt the development flexibility for this potentially very valuable land.

It is in the public interest to have a proper public input process as required by law in accordance with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), to develop the best design and best outcome for the whole corridor.

Project Alternatives