Special Report: A Slow Road to Progress In Huntsville

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) -- For drivers who come in to Huntsville on Highway 431, the morning commute is something to be dreaded.  The trip that used to take a few moments to go over Monte Sano and into town now takes up to an hour or even longer.  The culprit is construction on 431 at the Dug Hill Road intersection.  The $5.5 million project is intended to make the increasingly busy intersection safer.

The delay for drivers is caused by traffic into town being confined to just one lane while workers build an on ramp for Dug Hill drivers.

"Usually it takes me about 15 minutes, but now it takes about 45 to 50 minutes," says Huntsville driver Melissa Spears.

"It's every single day, and the worse the weather, the longer the line," says Layne King.

Drivers approaching the base of Monte Sano on 431 run into backed up traffic about a mile and a half from the construction site. It's the same thing every work day. Because the problem is caused by concrete barriers, the work schedule has no effect.  The District Engineer for the Alabama Department of Transportation, Johnny Harris says it will be at least three more months before 431 traffic into Huntsville will be back to two lanes. It's important to remember, the estimation depends on a certain amount of good weather.

"There's no good way around it," says King.  "It's the only access they have." 

He's talking about the fact that the 431 route to Huntsville is the most direct for many commuters, but there are two other possible routes. One is Cecil Ashburn Drive of Huntsville Mountain. The other is taking the Eastern Bypass from 431 to Highway 72, and then coming on to town that way.

As part of our "Slow Road To progress" report, WHNT News 19 did an experiment.  Leaving the Hampton Cove area at 7:20 a.m. on a work day, I drove the 431 route past the construction. Videojournalist Jeff Gray took the Cecil Ashburn Route, and Assistant News Director David Williams drove the Highway 72 route. We all finished our trips at the Medical Mall at the corner of Governors Drive and Memorial Parkway.

For Jeff Gray, there was a holdup at the intersection of Sutton Road and Old Big Cove Road at the base of Huntsville Mountain. Once through that intersection, Jeff says it was smooth sailing. He finished his trip of 9.7 miles in 29 minutes and 58 seconds.

I was second fastest driving past the construction. My route was 8.7 miles long and I finished in 37 minutes and 31 seconds.  David Williams' route was the longest at more than 23 miles. He finished in 39 minutes and 13 seconds.

The Cecil Ashburn route was the fastest by more than seven minutes. The longer Highway 72 route was the slowest. 

"The frustration level was least on 72, but out of the three of us today, I was last," said Williams, who normally takes the Highway 431 route to work.

We had one additional concern about the travel delays during the morning rush hour. What if someone is badly hurt and needs to get to the hospital? Would an ambulance be able to make the trip in a timely manner?

"No question about it," says Don Webster, the Chief Operations Officer of Huntsville's HEMSI ambulance service. Webster says HEMSI is in constant contact with construction managers, and its drivers are kept informed of the traffic problems and the best route to town. Webster also says that if need be, a patient could be transported by helicopter. 

According to Webster, HEMSI has thought about this construction project and the problems it causes. They're not worried, though.

"Speed is not always the answer in an emergency crisis. Sometimes you think it is, but an urgent transport is good as long as it's done safely. That's the bottom line," said Webster.

The bottom line on the frustration of traveling to Huntsville on Highway 431:  Construction will continue for months to come and for at least the next three months traffic into town will deal with a single lane.  Drivers seeking a slightly faster route could come into south Huntsville on Cecil Ashburn Drive. Emergency workers are well aware of the travel delays, and no one's safety should be affected.

The "Slow Road To Progress" that is the Highway 431 project isn't going away.  WHNT News 19 has taken action to make sure you understand the situation and your driving options.