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City's unimproved streets policy proceeds

By Kevin Elliott


Birmingham city commissioners on Monday, April 26, approved changes to the city’s unimproved streets policy in order to address roughly $118 million in roadwork.


Birmingham has more than 25 miles of 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. About a third of the city’s streets are considered unimproved roads.


An ad-hoc unimproved streets committee took up the issue in 2018, with a full report issued by the committee in late 2020. Overall, the report found it would cost about $118 million to improve about 26 miles of road, including 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 road 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 the reconstruction, which often leads to neighbors being at odds.


The committee, in its report, recommended the city initiate the process through a ranking system of all unimproved roads. Further, the committee 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.


Birmingham consulting engineer Jim Surhigh recommended the city move forward with recommendations in the report. Specifically, he said a review of the ordinance and subsequent changes should be made to make the process of initiating street improvements more proactive. Second, he recommended the commission direct staff to begin a process of rating streets and making a priority list. Finally, he said a master plan for unimproved streets should be completed, with final actions coming when that is complete.


Surhigh’s recommendations follow an April 12 city commission workshop on the issue, in which those recommendations and a fourth item related to planning for street improvement projects were discussed.


Commissioner Rackeline Hoff questioned whether residents would be presented with actual costs prior to initiating the process.


“I think the level of interest may vary depending on if you do an evaluation of water, sewer and pavement first, so that people know what they are dealing with,” she said. “That’s a big question. What are the order of the steps?”


Surhigh said he envisions the process the same as Hoff, with a cost estimate of all needs presented prior to the petitioning process.


Commissioner Clinton Baller recommended including previously unimproved streets that have been improved into the plan, so that information could be worked into the maintenance schedule.


Commissioners unanimously approved the actions.

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