Birmingham unimproved streets plan accepted
By Kevin Elliott
It will cost roughly $118 million to improve nearly 26 miles of unimproved streets that have never been fully paved throughout the city of Birmingham, according to a report accepted by the city commission on Monday, December 21.
“This is critical,. Once a plan is implemented for unimproved streets, it will be the largest and most expensive infrastructure plan in the city,” said Scott Moore, chair of the ad-hoc unimproved streets committee, which began studying the issue in 2018.
About a third of the city’s streets are considered unimproved roads, which are essentially gravel roads with coats of sealer applied on top. Unimproved roads have no curbs or gutters, and often are subject to water pooling and uneven surfaces. Improved roads are asphalt or concrete. Further, unimproved roads aren’t able to participate in leaf collection or street cleaning.
City manager Joe Valentine said the committee looked at the history and evolution of roads in the city, as well as billing, maintenance, a funding model and other aspects that were included in the committee’s report.
“The problem is 26 miles of gravel roads with a slurry seal that don’t meet with the residents’ expectations,” Valentine said. “They aren’t engineered or designed for proper grade or drainage.”
The committee – which included two members of city commission, three residents living on unimproved roads, one on an improved road and one with a background in road design – found the average lifespan of an unimproved road is roughly seven to 10 years. Improving those roads requires asphalt or concrete, as well as drainage and gutter utilities at the time of improvement.
In total, the committee estimated it would cost about $2.2 million in water main replacements and $1.2 million in sewer line replacements per mile of roadway to be improved, as well as about $2.3 million in street costs, for a total of $4.55 million per mile.
Further frustrating the issue of road replacement is the funding process. Currently, any reconstruction must be initiated by residents living on the street through the special assessment district process, or SAD. As such, at least 51 percent of residents impacted by the work must agree to pay for reconstruction, which often leads to neighbors being at odds.
The report recommended the city initiate improvements through a ranking system of all unimproved roads. Further, it recommended the use of concrete, rather than asphalt, to reconstruct roads because of its longer durability with final decisions being left to the city’s engineering department. The assessments would be updated annually and included in the city’s capital improvement plan.
Finally, the committee recommended using general fund transfers to fund the road component of improvements, with bonds being made available for funding water and sewer components as part of the long-term plan. The cost allocation for reconstruction is recommended to remain the same, with homeowners bearing 85 percent of the costs and the city 15 percent.
Valentine said the payback period for the SAD is set at 10 years, as set by the city; however, a homeowner may use an alternative funding source on their own if they like. He said most are paid immediately or within three years of the work.
Resident Matthew Carmona, who lives on an unimproved street in Birmingham, said he was concerned the city may force some residents to improve streets, regardless if the majority doesn’t want it.
“Citizens need to have more say on what happens on their streets when the time comes,” he said.
Commissioners unanimously approved accepting the plan, but modified the motion to allow further discussion in the future before implementing any specific aspects.