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Alabama DOT Wants to Gouge a Highway Through This Historic Town Center

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 1.51.08 PM
North Eufaula Avenue, the heart of Eufaula, Alabama's historic town center, is under threat by the Alabama DOT. Photo: Robin McDonald

The town of Eufaula, Alabama, population 13,000, is known for its historic buildings. Stately mansions, giant live oak heavy with Spanish moss -- it's exactly the type of place that comes to mind when you picture Southern small-town charm.

Every year the city hosts a home tour called the Eufaula pilgrimage, which culminates with the grand mansions on North Eufaula Avenue. That event and other cultural tourism brings millions of dollars to the local economy every year.

Which is why many residents were horrified when the Alabama Department of Transportation came to town in November and announced it would be widening North Eufaula Avenue, through the heart of the historic district. Widening the road from two lanes to four would cut into the roots of the stately oaks and make this historic small-town street feel like a high-speed freeway.

Doug Purcell, a long-time resident and board member of the Eufaula Heritage Association, has been leading the local campaign against the project. The state of Alabama has tried to widen the road three times in the 42 years he's lived there, and he's fought back every time.

"North Eufaula Avenue defines the special character of Eufaula," he said. "It’s Eufaula’s front porch and one of its showcases."

Purcell and other activists gathered 6,000 signatures opposing the widening.

Alabama construction crews began construction on North Eufaula Avenue, against locals' wishes, Tuesday. Photo: Zoe Powell
Crews began construction on North Eufaula Avenue, against locals' wishes, last Tuesday. Photo: Zoe Powell
Alabama construction crews began construction on North Eufaula Avenue, against locals' wishes, Tuesday. Photo: Zoe Powell

Alabama DOT has not budged, however. The agency wants to widen the road because U.S. Route 431 is a popular north-south route to Alabama and Florida's beaches. The town sits about equidistant between Atlanta and Panama City Beach.

During summer holiday weekends and around spring break, traffic backs up and drivers may wait up to half an hour to pass through the two-lane, three-quarter-mile stretch in the town center. Throughout the rest of the year, locals say there are no traffic problems.

Residents like Purcell preferred a bypass the state had been considering but abruptly abandoned in favor of the road widening last year, citing cost concerns. Purcell says the widening isn't likely to solve the traffic problem, even though it will do permanent damage to the character the town.

"The problem are the 13 traffic lights that motorists have to navigate getting through Eufaula," he said.

Last month, Eufaula residents and the city enlisted the Southern Environmental Law Center and filed suit against the DOT, alleging the state was inappropriately skirting historic preservation and environmental rules. The state has maintained that because the $1.3-million project will be funded with only state dollars and not any federal money, it is not required to meet federal regulations. The suit contends the road project should be considered part of a wider package of projects that are receiving some federal support.

The opponents are seeking a temporary injunction to halt construction. Meanwhile, the state of Alabama began construction two weeks ago and has begun pruning back branches of the giant oaks.

"It’s hard to fight a state organization with millions and millions of dollars at their disposal," said Purcell. "It’s just the wrong thing for this particular community."

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