A New Little Cahaba Bridge: Will it Open Traffic Route, At Cost of Water Quality?

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Old, closed bridge on Cahaba Beach Road. Photo Credit: Hank Black

Old, closed bridge on Cahaba Beach Road. Photo Credit: Hank Black

A proposal to widen Shelby County’s Cahaba Beach Road, and build a bridge across the Little Cahaba River to connect with Sicard Hollow Road,  has prompted outcry and questions from environmental groups and nearby property owners. The undeveloped area protects a source of Birmingham drinking water and is a popular recreational attraction for people of the region who canoe, hike, fish, or seek the solitude of the forested land.

Beth Stewart, executive director of the Cahaba River Society (CRS) said, “We are deeply concerned about this project’s potential impacts to the region’s drinking water, habitat for federally-listed aquatic species, and the most healthy remaining large tributary in the upper Cahaba watershed.”

Opponents are rallying their followers to protest the plan at meetings Tuesday and Thursday this week. The meeting Oct. 11 will be at Liberty Park Middle School cafeteria, 17035 Liberty Parkway, Vestavia Hills, AL 35242. The Oct. 13 meeting will be at the First Christian Church, 4954 Valleydale Rd., Birmingham AL 35242. Both are scheduled for 5-7 p.m.

Cahaba Beach Road begins on its southern end at the intersection of Valleydale Road and U.S. 280 and goes northward, narrowing to a partly dirt surface as it approaches an ancient, one-lane steel bridge that was closed in the early 1990s. Now highway engineers are hoping to reconnect Cahaba Beach Road from Swan Drive, 1.7 miles from U.S. 280, to Sicard Hollow Road via a new bridge.

The meetings are part of the project’s environmental assessment process, according to Shelby County engineer Randy Cole. He and other officials from Shelby County, the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT), and a design consulting firm will present maps of the project, including preliminary maps of alternate routes.  They will also answer questions, and hear comments from anyone concerned, he said. People can submit written or verbal comments at the meeting.

ALDOT assistant district engineer Geneva Brown said the meeting will be informal, in an open-house format, and that a written description of the project and comments would be given to everyone. The proposed project is part of Shelby County’s five-year plan that started in 2014. Funding for the project is in place through the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program, she said. If completed, the estimated project cost would be about $4.4 million, with 80 percent of that coming from federal funds and the rest from Shelby County, according to county and state highway planning documents.

Visitors gather on rustic bridge. Photo Credit: Hank Black

Visitors gather on rustic bridge. Photo Credit: Hank Black

Bill Wood, whose family has owned property near the proposed project for five generations, said he’d be at the meetings to learn where the proposed bridge would be located and to ask why it is even being considered. “I cannot imagine any reason why Shelby County and ALDOT want to open this road to connect it across the river to the detriment of the drinking water supply for all of greater Birmingham,” Wood said.

He added, “My neighbors and I have been frustrated by the lack of information we get as to alternate routes, so we’ll be there at the meeting prepared to offer our comments. But this isn’t just about us, it’s about the water we all drink and the undeveloped land that protects that water for all of us to enjoy.”

Roadway about “connectivity.”

Shelby County engineer Randy Cole said it’s all about roadway “connectivity.”    He said, “We want to open (the route) back up to increase connectivity.  A good road network allows multiple corridors of access, and this connection needs opening up” to allow multiple such corridors along the U.S. 280 commuter route.

“If this goes forward, it’d still be a few years before construction would start,” Cole said.

Foes of the proposal aren’t buying the connectivity argument. Shelby County engineers say joining Cahaba Beach and Sicard Hollow roads with a new bridge might divert about 10 percent of traffic off of U.S. 280. And several project opponents said congestion on the newly opened route would be dangerous because of several sharp curves along Sicard Hollow Road.

Wood said, “Runoff of sediment from construction, the gas and oil pollution from the cars and trucks that will come later, and the development that will follow would threaten to overcome the Little Cahaba.”

Last year Trae Watson, who lives with his parents on land they own near the proposed road extension, opened a Facebook page, SaveTheLittleCahaba.org, to connect opponents of the project.

“We collected signatures on petitions to stop the project, and we’ve put out a lot of information to a lot of people concerned about this project,” he said. “Taking the bridge and road from one to two lanes and paving it will greatly increase traffic and bring development that can devastate the nearby environment,” he said. “If the point is to solve any traffic problems, this would create more, instead.”

 Advocates Question Impact 

Both major Cahaba advocacy groups, Cahaba River Society and Cahaba Riverkeeper, raise concerns about the project.

Myra Crawford is executive director of the Riverkeeper. She said opening the road and building a bridge over the Little Cahaba River “will destroy a pristine haven through which Birmingham’s drinking water flows.”

She said the proposed road would also put at risk endangered species of freshwater mussels living in that part of the river.

“We have more pressing needs for our federal highway dollars than to build a new bridge and open a vacated road,” Crawford said.

“We’re equally concerned about the prospect of this project destroying the tranquility of a unique natural area currently enjoyed by bicyclists, day-hikers, and runners,” she added.

On a recent afternoon, several people were visiting the river and the old bridge off Cahaba Beach Road. Sam Ferrill and Jordan Morris waded in the drought-diminished but still quick-flowing water as their dog splashed nearby. “This is such a relaxing place, less than five minutes from 280,” Ferrill said. “It’s nice to find someplace close, away from the noise and traffic. I’d be against any development that would affect it.”

Beth Stewart said the project would “bring heavy traffic through Birmingham Water Works property and private forested lands protecting the Little Cahaba,” she said. “That river conveys raw drinking water from Lake Purdy to Water Works intakes. In addition it would draw intensive growth to undeveloped lands around the river further endangering the watershed.”

Stewart said, “Any road of a size and alignment to carry more than local traffic would open the areas around the Water Works property that protects our drinking water. Project construction and spin-off development will result in increased sedimentation in the river and negatively impact the quality of the Little Cahaba.”

About half the surrounding land is undeveloped and owned by the Water Works Board, according to the CRS. Birmingham annexed the property, including the Lake Purdy reservoir, in the mid-1980s to protect its water supply. Property owners along the river granted covenants restricting their use of their own property in exchange from the water board prohibiting development in the Cahaba Beach Road area, according to Bill Wood.

An initial assessment of the impact of the project on the environment was begun last year and results have not been announced, according to Shelby County Engineer Randy Cole. CRS and others have stated to ALDOT that the level of potential impacts and of public concern about the project should trigger a full environmental impact statement process, Stewart said.

Stewart said her organization has not taken a position opposing the project but is asking ALDOT to conduct “a thorough Environmental Impact Statement process that fully evaluates the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of the project and involves the public in meaningful dialogue.”

“CRS prefers to determine our recommendations based on sound science and a robust stakeholder process,” she said.

This isn’t the first time rejoining Cahaba Beach and Sicard Hollow roads has come up. There was a plan in the 1990’s to build a toll-road along that route to connect U.S. 280 and Interstate 459, according to a 2013 Al.com story. Traffic reporter Mike D. Smith reported that year he had heard there was interest in reactivating the road, but, he wrote, “Shelby County doesn’t have any plans to extend the road or improve the bridge, according to county engineer Randy Cole.”

Hank Black is a Birmingham freelance writer. He was reporter, editorial writer and magazine writer for the Birmingham News, reporter for the Tuscaloosa News and managing editor of the Tuscaloosa Graphic weekly newspaper.  He retired after 40 years at UAB and UAB Health System.

Correction:   This story has been revised to reflect that Cahaba River Society has not adopted a position on the Cahaba Beach Road road and bridge projects.  An earlier version said that CRS opposed the projects.  

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