By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) officials held a public meeting at the Cahaba Grand Conference Center near the Shelby-Jefferson County line to build public support for their plans to improve traffic flow on US Highway 280, which connects much of Shelby County with the City of Birmingham. ‘The Alabama Political Reporter’ was in attendance to cover the announcement about the Hwy 280 plan to make improvement on a 9 mile stretch of 280 from Hollywood Boulevard to Doug Baker Boulevard.
ALDOT Director John Cooper said that Darrell Skipper from Skipper Consulting was the lead consulting engineer on the plan. Cooper stressed that this project was an ALDOT plan, not a Skipper project. Cooper said that ALDOT was redesigning 26 intersections on a 9 mile stretch of US Highway 280 and stressed that, “All 26 intersections are different.” Cooper said, “I have a most interesting job. Every morning I wake up knowing that nothing I will do will please all of you.” Cooper asked that the audience take the time to study and think about the plan before they make the decision to simply oppose it (like residents have opposed almost all previous plans).
Darrell Skipper said that currently US Highway 280 is a six lane divided roadway with 24 traffic signals in the discussed 9 mile section of 280. Traffic congestion peaks on weekday mornings and in evenings when people are returning from work. Highway 280 also has congestion problems around noon when people are trying to get lunch. Skipper said that HWY 280 was designed as a regional roadway, but is serving a different function competing function now. Skipper said that ALDOT has done over a dozen studies in the last 15 years and spent $8 million studying the problem; but very few improvements have actually been implemented due to a lack of consensus.
Skipper said that the elevated toll road previously recommended by ALDOT would cost $800 million. The competing Rethink 280 solution would cost $320 million. We don’t have the money to do either plan. Skipper said, “The purpose of this plan was to do something.” Skipper said that under this plan the state will buy no right of way, will have minimal impact on commuting traffic during construction, the plan fits into future goals for the roadway, compliments the existing signal timing project, and would be consist with the elevated expressway if it were built in the future.
Skipper said that all the construction work will be done in the road right of way and that there will not be any need to close lanes during peak traffic hours. If any lanes are closed for construction it will be at night or on the weekends. Skipper said, “If you have access now you will have access in the future.” “We are trying to increase safety in the corridor.” Skipper said that congestion on 280 is a time management issue. There is a presently as much as a three and a half minute wait at some traffic lights. Presently all six lanes of traffic have to stop so just a few vehicles can get in or out.
Skipper said that under the ALDOT plan there are 26 separate improvements developed on the highway, one traffic light is removed altogether (in front of the Hampton Inn) , nine locations where turning capacity is increased, three locations where one direction of 280 does not stop, and several intersection where the left hand turn will be eliminated.
Skipper said that the Summit intersection, the Valleydale Intersection, and the Cahaba Park Circle intersections were among the hardest places to redesign and improve.
Skipper said that presently at each signal you can make 8 different movements. Under this plan, instead of left hand turns occurring at every intersection there will be signalized U-turns for motorists to go to the next traffic light and then come back.
Skipper said that this plan will give motorists an increased travel speed of 4-5 mph which will lead to a 20% increase in miles per gallon and a 20% savings in what local motorists spend on fuel. Skipper said that the project will cost $12-15 million, which is just 2% of the cost of the proposed elevated structure.
Skipper said that construction on Highway 280 is very difficult to do because of the amount of traffic and the desire not to make the traffic situation much worse during the construction. Skipper said that work would be begin in April 2013 and could conclude as early as November 2013. Skipper said that ALDOT, “Wants to get in there as quick as possible and get out as quick as possible.”
Numerous residents spoke about their concerns about the plan.
Mountain Brook Police Chief Ted Cook said, “We have several concerns about the U-turns.” Cook said that he thought that the left turns without signalization would lead to more serious car wreck. “You are creating a hazard at Hollywood Boulevard. There are several aspects I do like, but I believe it will cause greater accidents at speed.”
The President of the Homewood City Council Bruce Limbaugh said that he favored the alternative proposal which is to leave all the traffic lights in place. “There are real concerns in Homewood about additional traffic flow at intersection #1.”
Ms. Sanders with the local retailers association objected to the removal of the traffic light at the Hampton inn. “We think that trying to improve this section you will be creating a very hazardous situation. You are hurting the city of Mountain Brook, the City of Homewood, and devaluing our retail area.”
Lee Rogoff who owns Rogers Trading Post said that he would not have bought his business without a traffic light.
Tori Smith thanked ALDOT for trying to tackle the 280 problem; but said that she had safety issues with the plan. “It is difficult to imagine how you would make U-turns on 280.” Smith said that the plan is a deterrent to people wanting to use businesses that you could not turn left into. “I am concerned that this will be a big deterrent to people wanting to come into Mountain Brook.”
John Lemak said that he was concerned about safety and access to Hwy 280. Lemak said that he has seen no definitive analysis that this will improve the situation on 280.
ALDOT Director John Cooper said that ALDOT is limited by its current funding situation. Since ALDOT is funded by a static per gallon of fuel tax, inflation combined with rising automotive fuel efficiency means that ALDOT has less money to spend on projects like Hwy 280. With the tax position that the public has given the department, ALDOT is focused first on maintaining the infrastructure that we have. The second priority of ALDOT is to get more traffic through the existing infrastructure. This plan falls under that heading. Cooper said, “Rarely do we build something new. We do not have the funding to build new lanes or build new roads. We are trying to find the best balance between all the parties that use Hwy 280.”
US Highway 280 through southern Jefferson County and Northern Shelby County is widely considered to be the most congested roadway in the state. Shelby County is the fastest growing county in the state of Alabama and Hwy 280 is a vital conduit connecting this growing population with the largest city in the state, Birmingham. Highway 280 is also a regional connector highway connecting Birmingham with Sylacauga, Alexander City, Dadeville, Opelika, Auburn, and Auburn University.
According to ALDOT, in 2007 the roadway had 82,940 motor vehicles per day including 4980 commercial vehicles. ALDOT is projecting that that will grow to 102,832 vehicles per day by 2030. ALDOT grades the level of service on the road an “F-“.
Alabama’s COVID-19 hospitalizations surge over July 4th weekend
The new high of 919 patients in hospitals being treated for COVID-19 on Sunday was 41 percent higher than the number of patients a week ago on June 28.
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alabama hit another record high on Sunday, jumping over 900 for the first time since the pandemic began, and while the state’s supply of intensive care beds and ventilators are currently adequate, there’s concern that usage of both could spike in the coming weeks.
The new high of 919 patients in hospitals being treated for COVID-19 on Sunday was 41 percent higher than the number of patients a week ago on June 28, and the seven-day average of hospitalizations was also at a record high on Sunday at 818. Over the last week, Alabama saw five record highs in COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association and a former state health officer, told APR on Monday that 893, or 57 percent of the state’s supply of ventilators, were available Monday morning, while 309 of 1,669 ICU beds, or 18.5 percent, were available.
Williamson said while those two indicators are encouraging, it may take several weeks to learn whether many of those hospitalized will worsen and require ICUs and ventilators, and possibly lead to a rise in deaths. He said another possibility is that younger people are being admitted for COVID-19 but may not become sick enough to require more of the hospitals’ resources, and doctors are getting better at caring for coronavirus patients.
“We just don’t know yet. We don’t know which way we’re going to go,” Williamson said. “We just know we got a whole lot more cases than we had a month ago, and we’ve got a lot more hospitalizations than we had a month ago.”
Williamson said that from the week beginning June 29 to the week starting July 5, the average number of daily COVID-19 hospitalizations increased by 140, rising from 658 hospitalizations to 798 hospitalizations on average during that time. He believes the number of confirmed cases will continue to spike after Fourth of July celebrations.
For six straight days, Alabama has added more than 900 new COVID-19 cases daily, and on Monday the state recorded 925 new cases, and the 14-day average of new cases was also higher than it’s been since the pandemic began, at 1,025.
While testing has increased in Alabama, so too has the percent of tests that are positive, a marker public health experts say shows that there still isn’t enough testing and many cases are going undetected.
“We just know we got a whole lot more cases than we had a month ago, and we’ve got a lot more hospitalizations than we had a month ago.”
The 14-day average of percent positivity was 13.5 percent on Monday, and taking into account incomplete data on negative tests in April, which inflated the positivity percentage, the data Monday was at a record high. Public health experts say the number should be at or below five percent.
The seven-day and 14-day average of daily COVID-19 deaths both were at 11 on Monday, and the numbers have remained largely steady for most of May, June and July.
In the last week, there have been 79 COVID-19 deaths in the state. Since the pandemic began, there have been 984 deaths in Alabama attributed to the virus, and the Alabama Department of Public Health estimates that 23 more deaths are likely due to COVID-19.
Governor awards $48 million to Department of Education, up to $50 million for higher education
Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday awarded $48 million of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERF) to the Alabama State Department of Education in response to challenges related to COVID-19. This allocation will enable schools to enact policies established in the Alabama State Department of Education’s Roadmap to Reopening Schools.
As schools across Alabama are navigating increased challenges related to COVID-19, this initial investment will assist by providing budget stability, enable distance learning for any student that seeks it, and get additional resources to students most in need.
The allocation will be used as follows:
- $10 million to equip all school buses with WiFi capabilities to increase internet connectivity and help bridge the digital divide
- $4 million to improve remote learning opportunities by providing digital textbook and library resources for all students
- $26 million to provide additional academic support to bridge learning and achievement gaps
- $9 million to support intensive before and after school tutoring resources for learning and remediation in schools
Additionally, Alabama institutions of higher education will be able to submit requests for a combined reimbursement of up to $50 million of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). Alabama received approximately $1.9 billion of CARES Act funding to respond to and mitigate the coronavirus pandemic. Alabama Act 2020-199 designated up to $118.3 million of the Coronavirus Relief Fund for any lawful purpose as provided by the United States Congress, the United States Treasury Department, or any other federal entity of competent jurisdiction.
“I am pleased to invest in our state’s greatest asset – our students,” Governor Ivey said. “As we respond and adapt to COVID-19, we must ensure that our local school districts and institutions of higher education receive necessary support and provide our students full access to their educational opportunities. Closing school during the pandemic disproportionately impacts students who are already struggling, and it is our obligation to provide as much stability and access possible in these uncertain times.”
Tuberville should release fraud victims from NDAs, Sessions says
GOP Senate candidate and former U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions on Monday called on his primary opponent, former Auburn football head coach Tommy Tuberville, to release victims of a fraud scheme from non-disclosure agreements they signed as part of a court settlement.
“If Tommy Tuberville has nothing to hide, why does he continue to refuse to release the victims from the secrecy agreements that he made them sign, so that they could share exactly what happened?” Sessions said. “Tuberville and his lawyers must release the victims immediately, so we can get the full truth about this issue. Tommy’s hedge fund scheme bilked investors out of large sums of money, and now he’s trying to gag the victims to keep them quiet — and hope that Alabama voters don’t notice.”
Following the end of his coaching tenure at Auburn, Tuberville and former Lehman Brothers broker John David Stroud formed a hedge fund, which later went broke, costing the investors to lose their investments. Stroud went to prison and some investors sued Tuberville, who maintains he was the biggest victim of the fraud.
“If Tuberville was truly just an innocent investor and victim of the fraudulent hedge fund, as his campaign handlers now claim, why did he hand out business cards calling himself the ‘managing partner’ of the firm?” Sessions asked. “Why did the hedge fund’s offering documents that he gave to potential investors say that he was personally ‘responsible for the investment direction, capital raising, and the day-to-day oversight of business decisions’ of the fraudulent hedge fund? We need to know exactly what happened, and Tuberville must immediately give a full accounting of his scandals.”
Sessions has made the case that he is the known and vetted candidate and will be best able to withstand an onslaught of negative ads from Democrats who want to hold on to Democratic Sen. Doug Jones’ Senate seat, which some analysts view as the most vulnerable seat in the 2020 election and a key pickup if Republicans hope to hold their narrow Senate majority.
“If this is just coming out now, we have to wonder what other skeletons are hiding in Tommy Tuberville’s closet,” Sessions said. “The truth is that he’s an unvetted candidate, and Alabama voters can’t afford to send a question mark into the race against Doug Jones and the millions of dollars of out-of-state money at his disposal.”
According to The New York Times’ reporting and court documents, the victims include a married couple from Wetumpka, a bookkeeper and a retired teacher, who invested $800,000 with TS Capital. The other victims include a married couple from Auburn, who transferred over $100,000 from their retirement accounts to invest with TS Capital.
After more than a year of fighting the lawsuit, Tuberville settled the case by paying a secret amount. All the parties involved signed non-disclosure agreements that prohibit them from speaking about the fraud allegations.
The Sessions campaign claims that it appears that none of the victims were made whole. “Meanwhile, Tuberville filmed videos for ESPN, bragging about his house on the white, sandy beaches of Florida,” the Sessions campaign said in a parting shot.
Tuberville and Sessions are running in the Republican primary runoff on July 14. The winner will then face Jones in the Nov. 3 general election. Tuberville had the most votes in the March 3 Republican primary and has led Sessions in polling throughout the runoff race.
Judge refuses to dismiss Roy Moore lawsuit against Sacha Baron Cohen
A federal judge last week refused to dismiss a lawsuit against Sacha Baron Cohen, Showtime and CBS filed by former Senate candidate Roy Moore.
Federal Judge Andrew Carter last week refused to dismiss a lawsuit against Sacha Baron Cohen, Showtime and CBS. The lawsuit was filed by former U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore and his wife Kayla Moore, who claim that Cohen slandered Moore as a pedophile on his now-canceled show “Who is America?”
After the judge denied Cohen’s request to dismiss the $95 million lawsuit, the case will now proceed to discovery, where the Moores announced that they intend to take the depositions of and obtain evidence from Cohen and other relevant individuals at Showtime, CBS and their related entities.
The Moores had put the defendants on notice that if they aired the offensive and defamatory interview by Cohen, who posed in disguise as an Israeli Mossad agent, that they would be sued for large damages. When the defendants did not heed the warning and aired the interview anyway, the Moores brought their lawsuit.
The case is being litigated in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York after it was transferred over a year ago from a federal court in Washington D.C.
“We are gratified that the Court is allowing the Moores’ case to go forward and we look forward to putting Cohen and the other defendants under oath,” said Larry Klayman, founder of Judicial Watch and Freedom Watch, and a former federal prosecutor. “The alleged defamation of Chief Justice Moore was malicious and despicable and it is time that a jury of the parties’ peers allow justice to be done. Great harm has been caused to my clients, which must be addressed and remedied.”
In 2017, Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme court, was the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate. The Washington Post released an investigation that alleged Moore sexually abused young women in the 1970s. Moore denied the accusations.