MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Travelers heading through southeast Alabama to Florida Panhandle beaches could have a smoother route by the spring unless residents of the Southern mansions that line the last narrow stretch of highway can stop a widening project.
In the small town of Eufaula, the fight between Southern charm and traffic congestion has been going on since last spring, when transportation workers put out stakes to mark possible boundaries for a widened highway. The iconic two-lane drive of less than a mile through the heart of Eufaula's historic district — used in the 2002 Reese Witherspoon movie "Sweet Home Alabama" — is the state's busiest stretch of highway. Traffic backs up more than a mile on some weekends with trucks and tourists.
"DOT is only concerned about moving traffic from the metro Atlanta area through Eufaula to Florida beaches," said Doug Purcell, a leader of opponents to the project. He was among more than 250 people who turned out Tuesday night to hear the Department of Transportation outline its plan.
The department's project to widen the section of U.S. 431 is set to be completed by April 1, about a week before Eufaula celebrates its 50th annual pilgrimage of homes. The town's mansions draw thousands of tourists each year.
"There is no way we could continue to have a pilgrimage and have people walk across four lanes of traffic. A lot of these people are elderly," said Pam Snead, director of the Eufaula Heritage Association.
The Department of Transportation is advertising for bids to widen the section by 6 feet to allow four lanes 11 feet wide.
Transportation Director John Cooper said it will cost less than $1 million, compared to an unaffordable price tag of $120 million for a seven-mile bypass that some opponents would like to see constructed.
"We can't allocate $100-plus million to build a new bypass here when we can solve the problem here for the next 20 years for less than a million," he said Tuesday.
Opponents say they will sue to stop the project because state officials are not considering the damage that would be done to the neighborhood of homes from the 1800s.
Alabama has widened the highway to four lanes from Interstate 85 in Opelika to the Florida line except for the 0.7-mile stretch known as North Eufaula Avenue. The two lanes are divided by state-owned medians 28 to 54 feet wide. They are filled with crepe myrtles, azaleas and giant live oaks that create a canopy in front of mansions.
Transportation officials said his department has compromised from its original proposal for four 12-foot lanes. They said the new plan would cause the loss of only one oak, the relocation of a few crepe myrtles, and inconsequential cutting of small roots on the remaining trees.
"You will still have a very broad median. You basically will hardly be able to tell the difference," the department's chief engineer, Ronnie Baldwin, said.
Opponents say the widening will seriously damage the root systems of the remaining trees. "When they cut the roots, the trees will die in three or four years," said former Auburn University football coach Pat Dye, who now runs a nursery in Notasulga.
Purcell, who has spent his life promoting historic preservation in southeast Alabama and southwest Georgia, fears Eufaula's historic district will lose its appeal.
"Over time no one is going to want to live in those old houses," he said.