Our WAAY 31 I-Team Investigation digs below the surface into the fight to find a fix for traffic tie-ups on I-565.
The Interstate spur is often a headache for commuters. Now some local leaders are saying it could become a matter of life or death. And 565’s current state might keep new companies with new jobs from moving in.
"I love y'all," Nikki Hooker told her two children.
"Bye, Mommy! Bye," they collectively called out.
Saying goodbye to Mitchell and Marley, Nikki heads out from home in Morgan county.
Nikki, who's a nurse, is on her way to work in Huntsville. She loves her job. But getting there, that's a different story.
A sunny Somerville sky paints a peaceful picture. But, whatever peace she was enjoying begins to give way to anxiety.
Nikki knows what's coming next: another white-knuckle morning filled with 565 frustration. The headache begins as soon as she tries to get off I-65.
"It's frustrating,” Nikki told WAAY 31 as we rode along for her morning commute. “It's awful. You have a panicked feeling of 'Are these people going to let me over?'."
Brake lights! The onramp looks more like a parking lot.
"And it's stop-and-go, stop-and-go," Nikki said.
Cars creep and crawl into a big bottleneck. "Like right here, trying to get over, it's just too many people."
Traffic flow failure on 565 is frequent.
"Most of the time, I'm late for work," Nikki told us. "You're in the car for about an hour in the mornings on the way to work."
I-565 means misery for many morning commuters. And Nikki says misery has plenty of company. "If you look over at other people, they look just as down and depressed as you."
The solution seems simple. "I think they should add a lane or two to 565," she explained.
Nikki’s not alone
“565 needs widening,” Decatur mayor Tab Bowling told WAAY 31.
Bowling is thankful for the Mazda-Toyota plant coming to Greenbrier.
“This will be for generations to come,” he said. “So, we’re very thankful.”
But, Bowling’s worried 565 is failing North Alabama.
So, he and other local leaders are applying political pressure. Tuscumbia, Muscle Shoals, Limestone County, Hartselle, Priceville and Decatur expressed their 565 fears.
They started a campaign to remind voters they can persuade Governor Kay Ivey and Democratic challenger Walt Maddox at the ballot box.
“We’re going into an election cycle,” Bowling told us. “And I believe leaders in North Alabama will come together and look for gubernatorial candidates – now that we’re down to two, Governor Ivey and the Democratic candidate Walt Maddox – and looking for commitments from them to make the necessary improvements for 565. That will influence a lot of voters in North Alabama
Planning for Mazda-Toyota, Mayor Bowling was part of a Tennessee Valley team that visited the Hyundai car factory in Montgomery. They saw how much traffic it creates.
“These are items like tires and batteries that they don’t want to warehouse,” Bowling said. “They come in on a truck. They take them off the truck and take them in directly to the work cell and put them on the vehicle.”
Bowling’s background is in automobile manufacturing supply-chain management. He knows firsthand how the auto-making process relies on just-in-time shipments. Just-in-time means minimal inventories at the plant. But, it also means a constant stream of trucks on the roads.
“Hyundai receives a truck a minute,” Bowling told WAAY 31. “Do the math on that and what that will mean to I-565.”
Bowling says improving I-565 could also be a matter of life or death.
“Whenever we have a need for bypass surgery, we have severe trauma, we have things relate to concerns with a birth -- those are typically things transferred to Huntsville Hospital,” the mayor said. “Huntsville Hospital is now that mothership, if you will. We can’t Medflight everyone to Huntsville Hospital. And so ground transport is very typical.”
Coming from the west, ambulance crews count on a clear shot down 565.
“We don’t want or need an incident on 565 where we can’t get through,” Bowling explained. “So, we’re also looking at lives.”
Lives and livelihoods.
565’s failings could keep other employers from moving in. And that would cost you and your neighbors new jobs.
Senator Arthur Orr told WAAY 31, “It is weighing on other projects considering locating along that corridor.”
Mayor Bowling insists ignoring 565 could hurt economic development across several North Alabama counties.
"It's a very big thing,” he told us. “It's important and critical to the growth of our city and I believe cities west of 65.”
WAAY 31 reached out to the Alabama Department of Transportation.
ALDOT said the Greenbrier interchange is just weeks from beginning.
Also, a traffic study is happening right now to see what traffic flow to Mazda-Toyota and nearby industry might eventually look like.
Once the study is done, likely in October according to ALDOT, the process to improve I-565 will begin.
Instead of major changes to 565, ALDOT tells WAAY 31 a fix could, for example, mean upgrading the I-65 Tanner interchange. Still, that would take pressure off 565. Plus, ALDOT points out the city of Huntsville is building the new five-lane Greenbrier Parkway which will be an alternative to 565.
ALDOT told us potential roadblocks to fast-tracking 565 upgrades include cutting regulatory red tape because of the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge.
So, work is underway on 565-related projects. But, those relatively small steps are far from the multi-million-dollar leap needed to widen 565.
“If no action is taken on 565,” Bowling said, “we have concerns about our ability to grow as a community.”
565’s real roadblock is money.
Senator Orr tells WAAY 31 there may be no local options.
“A Fuel tax at the local level would come nowhere near the $150-million needed,” Orr told us. “In the current funding climate, I believe we are probably a few years away from meaningful progress.”
Money is what it would take to push the gas pedal on widening 565.
“It really comes down to money,” Bowling said. “And the governor is the one that will make that decision.”
Representative Mike Ball calls North Alabama a battleground for Ivey and Maddox. He says that’s a plus in the fight to fix 565. And with a long list of state legislature leaders calling the Tennessee Valley home, Ball tells WAAY 31 he’s convinced lawmakers will commit to find funding.
WAAY 31 reached out to Governor Kay Ivey about 565’s future.
“It is the priority of my administration to ensure that the wheels of commerce can flow and that Alabamians can get to and from work in a safe and timely manner,” Governor Ivey told WAAY 31. “I have instructed ALDOT to look at the I-565 widening and to continue with the traffic study process.”
Ivey pointed out preliminary work has already begun. “Infrastructure improvements are underway along and near I-565, including the Greenbrier Interchange,” the governor told us. “We will see additional improvements that will help with the area’s expanding mobility needs. We must also coordinate with other ongoing projects and through consultation determine what the exact needs are for the area.”
We also wanted to hear how Walt Maddox weighs in on the 565 issue.
“Walt supports the Alliance for Alabama’s Infrastructure plan to improve roadways throughout the state,” Chip Hill with the Maddox campaign told us. “This includes prioritizing highway projects while also improving funding.”
Hill said I-565 is no exception. “The Alabama Department of Transportation has said that completing the I-565 project is a ‘high priority' project. At this point in time, as a candidate for governor, Walt would defer to the state’s experts as to the importance of I-565 compared to other needs throughout the state,” he told us.
Hill said it’s the position of the Maddox campaign that “the project should move forward with all deliberate speed while ALDOT continues its core mission to maintain and improve all state highways.”
As for the road ahead, Mayor Tab Bowling says improving I-565 is a must.
“Growing like we are, we need to have a bigger vision. But, this is the first step along the way.”
Meanwhile, on her way home, Nikki Hooker’s road ahead can be just as frustrating as her morning commute. “In the afternoons, it's just as bad because all the people that come in with you, they all go home with you, too."