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City eyes 2022 for unimproved street work

By Kevin Elliott

Birmingham is known for its walkable lifestyle and active downtown district, but few outside the city are aware of there are 26 miles of unpaved, unimproved roads throughout the residential neighborhoods.

While uneven gravel roads may add a bit of a rustic atmosphere, the city is pushing to have all city streets improved in the next 10 to 15 years. However, with a total price tag of $118 million, and residents on the hook for 85 percent of the costs, the project may be a hard sell to some homeowners. The project was the focus of a special city commission workshop on Monday, September 13.

Currently, residents who want their road to be paved must petition the city with at least 51 percent of adjacent neighbors agreeing to share the cost through a special assessment district (SAD). Residents benefitting from the improvement are assessed for 85 percent of the costs, while the city covers 15 percent.

Birmingham City Manager Tom Markus said changes to the way special assessment districts are initiated for unimproved streets will allow the city to initiate the process on high-priority streets. Those changes include gauging residents for an “expression of interest,” he said at the commission workshop.

“Many people will say they don’t want to be assessed. They want the road improved, but they don’t want to be assessed for it,” Markus said. “We are trying to get that information and are going to use it as a vehicle to introduce the project and get some feedback on it. That’s what the 'expression of interest' is.”

Markus said the goal isn’t necessarily to foist a project on residents, but to gather feedback before spending resources on design work. However, he said proposed changes to the ordinance will allow for the city to initiate the process. Further, the proposed changes would allow for city-initiated projects to be approved with less than a majority in favor.

“Eventually, you’re going to have to pull the trigger with 80 percent opposition on some of these streets, if you really want these streets improved,” Markus informed commissioners. “You’re going to have to have the wherewithal and the intestinal fortitude to make those decisions. They won’t be popular. They aren’t popular now. My experience is, even when you have opposition, about a year later or two years later, it kind of evaporates. But if you want these streets improved, that’s what it’s going to take. I will tell you that in my humble opinion, that is why these 26 miles of streets have not been improved over the years, it is because we have relied on people to petition.”

The changes come from a recommendation from the city’s ad hoc unimproved streets committee, which began looking at the issue of unimproved streets in 2018. The committee issued a report to the city commission in 2020, which found that water main replacements and sewer system upgrades should be factored into a ranking system of which streets to prioritize for improvements. The city since developed a ranking system that incorporates three overall rankings, including street conditions, sewer conditions and water system conditions. Those ranking the highest are where the city intends to place priorities.

Birmingham consulting city engineer Jim Surhigh said the process had led to three tiers of prioritization in the city.

“In the highest tier… I would consider all of those as your highest priority, not go in order,” Surhigh said. “The idea here is that as we start off on city-initiated projects, that we look at the list for a series of blocks that would make a logical project and start the process off of this. As we work on it year by year, we would be looking toward eliminating the highest tiered streets, even though we may include streets from the next lowest tier.”

Looking at the highest priority projects includes about three miles of road, including portions of Bloomfield, Wimbleton, Oxford, Shepardbush, Torry, Henley, Taunton, Bradford, Warwick, Abbey, Larchlea, Tottenham, Humphrey, Westwood, Stanley, Fairway and Greenlawn. The rankings reflect water, sewer and road ratings, not just street conditions.

“That’s representing about 10 percent of the (unimproved) road system,” Surhigh said. “The three miles that this includes is also a feasible number to try and tackle during a five-year plan.”

City funding for unimproved roads are put into the city’s five-year capital improvement plan, with the road budget coming from general fund transfers and water and sewer improvements. Residents may finance their assessment over 10 years.

Birmingham Mayor Pierre Boutros said while the initiation process may cause some residents to direct their frustration at the city, he said the current process tends to pit neighbors against neighbor.

Markus said the next steps in the process is to have the city attorney make changes to the ordinance, then start the process on tier one priorities. More specifics on policies will be determined as the process moves forward.

“The objective is to get this in place this fall so we can get construction started next year,” Markus said. “We need to get back to the routine of getting some of these streets knocked off the list.”


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