By Paul Gattis
Huntsville’s most pressing traffic infrastructure priority is the I-565 interchange at Memorial Parkway, a collection of one-lane intertwining ramps now operating at twice the capacity for which it was designed while shuttling traffic between the city’s two busiest roadways.
It’s far from the only segment of Rocket City roadways straining against the growth that’s expected to soon make Huntsville the state’s largest but Mayor Tommy Battle stressed its importance above all others during a recent trip to Washington.
Improvements for that interchange, however, also come with the largest price tag – more than $200 million, at least, according to Battle.
During a one-day visit to Washington last month, the mayor carried that message to the state’s congressmen and senators.
“It’s our junction to the world and, most importantly, the busiest intersection we have in town,” Battle said in a recent interview with AL.com.
Joined by the city’s External Relations Officer Henry Thornton and Huntsville political consultant Steve Raby on the trip, Battle said he kept a streamlined agenda for his meetings: Pushing for the I-565/Memorial Parkway interchange improvements to be added to the Federal Highway Administration’s priority list and lobbying for support for a government grant to help fund improvements along Pinhook Creek along with a pedestrian skybridge across the parkway between Governors Drive and Clinton Avenue.
And, of course, the evergreen request to protect funding for Marshall Space Flight Center.
When Battle met with Congressmen Mo Brooks, Robert Aderholt and Mike Rogers as well as Sens. Richard Shelby and Tommy Tuberville, he said he didn’t want to dump a long wish list of projects on the federal lawmakers so that those top priorities would resonate.
Battle said early estimates to reconfigure the interchange ranges from $200 to $300 million.
“They would say it definitely needs work,” Battle said of the Federal Highway Administration. “And you know, work on that is not cheap but it’s something that needs to be done to continue our growth that we’ve got.”
Stretching almost 20 miles connecting downtown Huntsville to I-65, I-565 fully opened in 1991 and the interchange has not seen any substantial improvements since. In every direction connecting Memorial Parkway and I-565, traffic is reduced to one lane.
Shane Davis, the city’s director of urban and economic development, said the interchange was designed to handle 48,000 cars on a daily basis. According to traffic counts in 2019, that number had more than doubled to about 108,000 vehicles, Davis said.
During peak traffic times, traffic slows to a crawl in merging lanes for more than a mile and Battle said the number of traffic accidents attributed to that gridlock has increased. The bottlenecks and the accidents are particularly troublesome on Memorial Parkway, which is largely a two-lane highway both north and south until it expands to four lanes in each direction at the interchange.
According to the Alabama Department of Transportation, Memorial Parkway just south of the I-565 interchange has about 130,000 vehicles per day while just north of I-565 on Memorial Parkway has about 77,000 vehicles.
ALDOT did not have a recent traffic count on I-565 through the interchange but just to west of the interchange, a 2019 count had an average daily count of more than 96,000 vehicles. In 2018, city engineer Kathy Martin said about 110,000 vehicles per day moved through the interchange on I-565.
Battle compared the Huntsville interchange to the recently reconfigured interchange in Birmingham of I-59 and I-65 at the crossroads of Alabama’s two prominent interstates known as “Malfunction Junction.” According to a 2019 ALDOT traffic study, about 120,000 vehicles went through that interchange every day.
That project topped $700 million and funding was shared by ALDOT, the Federal Highway Administration and the Birmingham Metropolitan Planning Organization.
“The changes we have are some flyovers (elevated ramps) much like I-59 and I-65 in Birmingham,” Battle said. “They had to put major, major money into it to make if functional. And we’re in the same stage.
“As we go through it, it’s not going to be an easy fix. It’s not going to be a quick fix. But it’s something that we’ve got to work on just to keep our major arterials open.”