It took a very long time — decades even. However, last week prayers were answered for Shelby County commuters that have been dealing with rush hour back-ups since the 1980s along Alabama Highway 261, a critical route that connects Helena and portions of Pelham and Hoover to U.S. Highway 31, Valleydale Road, Interstate 65 and beyond.
Helena was once a tiny hamlet in the western part of Shelby County. However, as population shifted to Birmingham’s southern suburbs, a trend that goes back to the mid-1980s, Helena has experienced a boom but has struggled with infrastructure woes in keeping up with the need. Much of it is not of its own doing given Helena is somewhat hemmed in to the east by Pelham, to the north by Hoover and to the south by Alabaster, and to the west and northwest by the Cahaba River.
Overcoming those geographic and jurisdiction obstacles have proven difficult for the area’s elected officials. However, State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) announced last week $30 million in combined federal and state funding to widen Highway 261 from two to four lanes had been secured.
“Most of your right-of-way acquisition is done,” Ward explained to Yellowhammer News. “You’re going from [U.S. Highway 31] down to Bearden Road. In 2021, the utilities get done. It is basically your sewer, water and power lines. In 2022, it is the actual construction and completion of the road.”
Ward broke down the funding, explaining that $24.2 million in federal money combined with $6 million in state funds in addition to “in-kind” contributions from Pelham, Helena, Hoover and Shelby County are making the project possible. But according to Ward, it has been a long wait.
“I got elected in ’02 to the House,” Ward said. “And I fought every year. I know [State Rep.] Matt Fridy has since then. Everybody that has come behind me has had the same issue. It’s been forever.”
According to the Alabaster Republican, right-of-way acquisitions and the revolving door at the governor’s mansion have led to the delays.
“In fairness, a lot of it was right-of-way acquisitions are a nightmare there, apparently,” he added. “Another part of it was every time a new governor came in, we switched priorities.”
Helena Mayor Mark Hall welcomed the news, noting the efforts to get the Alabama Department of Transportation to make widening the route a priority.
“That’s something we’ve been working on a long time – probably for the last six years,” Hall explained. “You know, I’ve been making regular trips to ALDOT and occasionally meeting with [ALDOT Director John] Cooper and showing him then and trying to convince him to find a way to get it on the front-burner for projects.”
Hall credited the joint transportation committee for making it a top-five project.
“It’s definitely a quagmire that needs to be addressed,” he said. “I’m really excited about the possibility that things could start moving by 2021. We tried everything. The mayors, the people that are affected by it to make sure we could get the funding and try to put something together to get the money because I think it would be the best money any of us have ever spent. It’s effects not only Helena but Pelham, parts of Hoover and Shelby County roads as well.”
According to Ward and Hall, the widening of Alabama Highway 261 was the first phase of a larger project. Eventually, a route that would bypass Helena, which would begin where the proposed widening would end at the Highway 261-Bearden Road intersection and connect to Shelby County Road 52, will be built. Widening Highway 261 to downtown Helena would prove difficult because of an existing quarry, a cemetery and historic structure in downtown Helena.
State Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Indian Springs), a candidate for U.S. Senate and who also represents a portion of the area to be impacted by the project, pointed to the joint effort required to make last week’s announcement a reality.
“Everybody that has served, not just during my time but Mary Sue McClurkin, Mike Hill, others who served and weren’t even a part of the Helena area – they worked hard,” Mooney said. “The county commission has worked hard. Shelby County has been begging for this fix for a long time.”
“It’s Hoover, Helena, Pelham and the county – all four entities are involved, and it’s one reason it has irked me can’t get more done with it,” he added.
@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV and host of “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN in Huntsville.