Alabama's new gas tax increase will go into effect Sept. 1, and some lawmakers hope Limestone County will benefit from a number of infrastructure improvements.
Two projects — the widening of Interstate 565 from County Line Road west to Interstate 65 and improvements to the I-65/Huntsville-Browns Ferry Road interchange — have already been announced for Limestone County as part of Gov. Kay Ivey's Rebuild Alabama Act First Year Plan 2020. However, two legislators spoke recently about the possibility of a southern bypass.
Both Rep. Danny Crawford, R-Athens, and Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said members of the local legislative delegation have been in talks with the Alabama Department of Transportation about the project, but it's more of a concept at this point. Both men believe the bypass would alleviate traffic on Athens' west side but say such a project would likely need federal funding to become a reality.
“I think the governor and ALDOT understand our growing pains, and with the support of the delegation and the gas tax, we'll be on the front burner for grants to get some things done,” Crawford said, adding the state has approached U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, about the project.
An exact route for the bypass isn't clear, but Crawford said it would ideally provide a way to funnel traffic from the west side of Athens to the Tanner crossroads.
“I think it would open up some chances for growth and we could get rid of some of our traffic problems,” Crawford said.
Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks said he was aware of the discussions about a bypass but added plans are “very preliminary” at this point. He wants to know how the project could affect the city's revenue streams before pledging support, but he's willing to consider it.
“If we grow to 35,000 or 40,000 people like we could in the next five to 10 years, this is something we may need to look at,” he said. “We don't want to look back years later and see we missed an opportunity to open up part of our city.”
Melson acknowledged the bypass could be a good idea, but he said the feelings of business owners should be taken into consideration. If fewer cars are traveling Athens' business-heavy U.S. 72 corridor, it could have a negative economic impact.
“My main concern right now is getting (U.S.) 72 widened, and then maybe we can talk about a northern loop or a southern loop,” he said.