Huntsville residents are used to going around things.
Most people have skirted around Redstone Arsenal for 65 years to get where they are going.
And, after all, when you live in a valley, there are going to be some mountains to traverse, but the priority $18 million Cecil Ashburn Drive road improvement project has been challenging for a lot of people since it was closed in January for a widening project.
Cecil Ashburn connects commuters from east Huntsville, Marshall and Jackson counties to downtown Huntsville, Redstone Arsenal, Cummings Research Park and beyond.
While the through pass is closed, there are three routes connecting Big Cove/Hampton Cove to Huntsville and destinations to the west and all three require going around Huntsville. U.S. 431 via Governors Drive; South Memorial Parkway via Hobbs Island Road; and U.S. 72 via Eastern Bypass/Rock Cut Road are all viable, if not the shortest, routes.
Almost since it opened in 2000, the winding two-lane shortcut through Huntsville Mountain from Jones Valley to Hampton Cove has been over-capacity. More than 17,000 vehicles travel it every day and, in the past 11 years, there have been 782 vehicle wrecks and 11 fatalities recorded along that 3.4-mile stretch of road.
The City of Huntsville knew it was going to be a bitter pill, but officials tried to alleviate as much pain as possible to improve traffic flow, increase capacity, and improve safety. The project will widen the road from two to four lanes between Old Big Cove Road and Four Mile Post Road, and safety improvements include eight-foot shoulders along each side of the roadway.
“We changed the scope of the project to save time and money and to minimize the impact on our residents and businesses,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle.
The Effects on Local Business
“The closure occurred just after the first of the year and, for us in the health and exercise business, January and February are our busiest months,” said Kim Edmunds, manager of Hot Yoga of Huntsville, at 326 Sutton Road on the east side of the construction. “We were outwardly worried people would have difficulty getting here for their appointments, but we have been surprised it is not any worse than it is.”
She said there has been a fall-off in attendance at the popular late-afternoon class, the one that attracts people on their way home from work between 4 and 6 p.m.
“We also see what we believe is a hesitation from our short term and trial members to make a long-term commitment while travel is limited,” she said. “We believe this will change when at least a couple of lanes are reopened this fall.”
Carl Stanfield, interim store manager for Alabama Outdoors, said during the week foot traffic to his store at 2030 Cecil Ashburn Drive in Jones Valley, seems to have slowed down, but weekends are still very busy.
“Checking with our corporate headquarters, we have seen a 25 percent drop in headcounts since the first of the year, so we think there may be some negative effects from the construction,” he said. “But the closure came the second week of January just as the holidays came to an end and school started back. That could also account for a natural drop-off after the holidays.”
Tropical Smoothie Café manager Tyisha Burt said her business at 2075 Cecil Ashburn Drive opened in September, so there isn’t any history to compare.
“We have been very busy the past few months I think because of the warmer weather,” she said. “But we believe, once the pass is opened again, things will be even better than they are now.”
Donna Denson, patient concierge at Austin Physical Therapy, drives in to the Jones Valley location from Scottsboro every day.
“The day before the road closed, I decided to try the Green Mountain route using Old Big Cove Road,” she said. “But it was foggy that day and it was too unfamiliar, so I started taking Hobbs Island Road to Bailey Cove. It is an hour drive, but not a bad drive at all.
“It takes a little extra time, but they say 17,000 cars travel Cecil Ashburn every day. That means a lot of people are taking some extra time and I see it as only a temporary lapse.
Denson said there has been a “significant” in appointments between 4 and 6 p.m. and 7 a.m..
“Lucky for us though, we have another location at the foot of Monte Sano when you come on Governors Drive,” she said. “So, rather than losing patients, they seem to just be booking the other location.”
Business seems to be more negatively affected on the Jones Valley side than the Hampton Cove side and the restaurant business seems to be the most negatively affected.
Moe’s Barbecue closed its doors due to a lack of business, according to neighboring tenants, but will be opening a location downtown.
Ben Patterson, manager of the Jones Valley Mellow Mushroom, said there is no escaping the reality that dinner has fallen off since the closing. But his customers are so loyal, they have expressed their commitment to making it in whenever they can.
“It was sort of like ripping off the Band-aid,” he said. “We had hoped they would not have to close down Cecil Ashburn completely, but we also know that the improvements will lead to a smoother, safer thoroughfare that will hopefully, when it opens again in October, lead to more traffic coming across from Hampton Cove.”
For Anaheim Chili, the lunch crowd still shows up but the dinner crowd has dwindled.
“People are certainly not comin’ ‘round the mountain’ as far as we can tell,” said manager Scott Harriman. “We have definitely seen a fall-off in dinner customers, but lunch is pretty steady.
“Where we see the biggest drop-off is Monday through Wednesday for dinner. A lot of people stop to eat on their way home or to grab take out, but they are not doing that right now, probably because it takes people off their route and it takes longer to get home.”
While no one likes to hear that the main access from one side of the mountain to the other side of the mountain is closing down for 10 months, the City of Huntsville and the contractor, Carcel & G Construction, have taken steps to ease some of the pain.
Originally, the project came in at $25 million with a timeline of nearly three years. The proposal had a caveat – one lane would stay open open during peak traffic times, something that sounded good to retailers and businesses in Jones Valley and Hampton Cove.
However, city planners said that plan would have been a costly, 32-month ordeal that posed additional safety concerns. City engineers came back with a new schedule and an adjusted $18 million budget they felt best addressed the needs and concerns of the community.
Those adjustments called for a complete shutdown of the roadway for 10 months beginning in January. In order to keep the project on track, the contractor has been offered financial performance bonuses of up to $2 million for each day work is ahead of schedule or meets the abbreviated construction timeline. Alternately, the contractor will be penalized up to $2 million for scheduled delays.
They are also incentivized to make sure at least two lanes of traffic will reopen within the first 10-month period, which takes us into October.
“We’re saving taxpayers millions of dollars and cutting two years of public pain in the construction process,” said Shane Davis, the city’s director of economic and urban development.
Clearing operations are complete and the highly unpopular blasting operations that have disturbed residents of the area are approximately 80 percent complete. The storm drainage installation is close to 70 percent complete. The contractor is coordinating with utility companies to begin relocation efforts.
Huntsville Utilities has completed the electrical relocation and others are scheduled to begin their work. The contractor will also begin installing water lines soon to complete the utility work.
They will begin to construct the roadway subgrade shortly thereafter.
“This schedule provides the least disruption course and gets motorists safely back on the road before the 2019 holiday season,” Battle said.