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Infrastructure

New I-20/I-59 bridge opens on time and below budget

Brandon Moseley

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Last Friday, state, federal, and local government officials formally dedicated the new I-59/I-20 bridge through downtown Birmingham. Completing this project on schedule was a priority for the Alabama Department of Transportation.

“Today is an exciting day for the City of Birmingham, Alabama, as we celebrate the reopening of the I-20/I-59 bridges!” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) said. “These bridges are 45 years old and needed rehabilitation to accommodate increased traffic & economic productivity. Thank you to everyone involved with this project.“

Both bridges are now open and traffic is moving more briskly through Birmingham than at any time in the last year.

“Great news for I-20/I-59 commuters – the bridges are ready to reopen!” Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin announced on social media. “The bridges were nearly 50 years old and due for upgrades. Thanks to ALDOT and crews for their hard work. Westbound and southbound lanes will open at 9 tonight.”

“Attended the ribbon cutting this afternoon for the new I59/I20 bridges in downtown Birmingham,” State Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville) said. “The roads will officially open no later than Tuesday, January 22. The project was completed ahead of schedule and below budgeted cost!”

The bridge is an elevated interstate that carries motorists through Alabama’s largest city high over the people of Birmingham down below. The existing bridge had exceeded its designed life expectancy and was carrying substantially more traffic than it was ever designed to handle. The new bridge cost $700 million to build. That money came from federal highway funds, the state’s road and bridge fund, and from the Metropolitan Planning Organization in Birmingham.

The project began in 2015; but the last phase of the effort required destroying the existing bridge and building the new one. This necessitated closing the busiest stretch of road in the state for a year. Traffic was rerouted through downtown Birmingham via Carraway Boulevard, Finley Boulevard, and other streets – none of which were designed to handle that amount of traffic. The state has been encouraging motorists, if possible, to rout their journeys through I-459 – the interstate belt that circles Birmingham to the south allowing motorists to avoid the city center.

ALDOT offered the general contractor a $15 million bonus is they could complete the bridge in just 365 days. The contractor met that ambitious goal and will collect the bonus.

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Economic developer Dr. Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Bridges move commerce, make travel times more efficient, and connect neighborhoods. Thank you to all in the public and private sector who worked together to make this happen in a timely, cost-effective manner. The Birmingham Central Business District thoroughfares are now open and are the best yet.”

Guests and dignitaries at Friday’s dedication ceremony included: Governor Kay Ivey, Congressman Gary Palmer, Jefferson County Commission Chairman Jimmy Stephens, Birmingham City Councilman Steven Hoyt, Representative Neil Rafferty, State Representatives Allen Treadaway, Rod Scott, Tim Wadsworth, David Faulkner, Kyle South, Danny Garrett, Rolanda Hollis, David Wheeler, Dickie Drake and Louise Alexander and State Senators Roger Smitherman and Linda Coleman-Madison, Economic Developer Dr. Nicole Jones, ALDOT East Central Region Engineer DeJarvis Leonard, Commissioner Joe Knight, Tad Snider of the BJCC, businessman and Master of Ceremonies Mike Kemp, as well as additional members from state, county, and local government, ALDOT, area businesses, and various neighborhood associations.

To see the dedication ceremony: Here. 

 

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Infrastructure

Cable provider wants more access to broadband as schools stay closed, go to E-learning

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced that Alabama’s K-12 schools will remain closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year.

“Beginning at the start of school on April 6, 2020, all public K-12 schools shall implement a plan to complete the 2019-2020 school year using alternate methods of instruction as established by the State Superintendent of Education,”

For many wealthier suburban children, this will mean a transition to E-learning. For many poorer and more rural children, they don’t have broadband in their homes.

Some schools already have this in place. Other systems will be scrambling to get compliant with Superintendent Eric Mackey’s directives and parents will have to figure it out once their local schools do.

If your internet connection consists of going to the McDonald’s parking lot (sitting in the dining portion of a restaurant is now illegal due to COVID-19 fears) being a good E-learner will prove to be challenging it if happens at all.

Alabama cable providers want to supply that broadband to unserved and underserved communities. The Alabama Cable and Broadband Association welcomed the news.

“Taking into account the events of the last three weeks, greater reliance on high-speed internet service from our homes has emerged almost overnight,” said ACBA Executive Director Michelle Roth, Executive Director. “Fortunately for many Alabamians, high-speed or ‘broadband’ access already existed in the home. But for many who live in rural areas of the state, and for those who cannot afford broadband service, the spotlight exposed the absence of broadband in homes and small businesses.”

“Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak, Alabama cable providers rolled out no-cost and low-cost options for high-speed internet access to the state’s students and low-income populations hit hardest by closures and other impacts of the virus,” Roth said. “These efforts include offering free broadband and Wi-Fi access for up to 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students, extending low-cost broadband programs, opening Wi-Fi hotspots for public use, eliminating disconnections of internet service for customers having difficulty paying, and increasing internet speeds universally.”

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Even prior to the current public health crisis, Alabama’s cable providers had already been planning to invest more than $13 million to bring broadband telecommunications services to rural Alabama citizens who do not yet have high-speed internet services. The investment would be incentivized through $4.67 million in grant funding from the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund (ABAF), a state fund established in 2018 to help extend broadband services to rural Alabamians who do not yet have them.

These ABAF grants can fund up to 35 percent of project costs to extend broadband technology, would enable the full $13 million cable provider broadband investment. These grant-funded projects would be in addition to the ongoing rural broadband investment being made by Alabama’s cable providers, Roth said.

For the current ABAF grant cycle, the 18 grants applied for by Alabama cable providers cover nearly 8,000 rural Alabama homes and businesses, including 35 community anchor locations such as rural hospitals and libraries. The grants seek to serve the highest number of unserved homes, businesses and community anchor points for the least cost and best level of service. Projects including the highest broadband speeds are emphasized in the evaluation process.

“Alabama’s cable companies have been providing broadband to rural consumers since the late 1990s, and we are proud to continue efforts to expand broadband service in rural areas,” Roth said. “But bringing high-speed, broadband access to Alabama’s rural customers takes more than just cable provider investment. It takes all broadband providers across technology platforms working together for a common good as quickly and efficiently as we can.”

“No stakeholders can say for sure how our economy and society will change as a result of the COVID-19 crisis; however, this much is clear: we must expedite our collective industry efforts to bring broadband to the state’s rural and low-income citizens, so that everyone has a chance at a much brighter future,” Roth said.

While unserved communities is the focus on the state’s broadband efforts, there are also many communities with an obsolescent cable connection that don’t have enough bandwidth and speed to get the most out of the internet.

As of press time, 526 confirmed cases of COVID-19 had already been found and hundreds of COVID-19 diagnosed persons, as well as people who were admitted to the hospital with symptoms that appear to be COVID-19 are filling Alabama’s intensive care wards and many of them are on ventilators. Children’s Hospital already has one of these patients.

Families are being advised to shelter in place for their own protection and so as not to spread the virus to other people. The Mayors of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa have both given orders forbidding nonessential movements. This will be somewhat perplexing for the parent that has to drive miles to a library, Jacks, or McDonalds to access the WIFI for the child to fulfill their public school assignments.

We don’t know yet whether grades and advancing to the next grade or not will be dependent on how a child performs in the remaining eight weeks of distance learning.

COVED-19 has already killed 1,300 Americans, including at least one Alabamian, as of press time and over 84,000 Americans have been confirmed with the disease. Many more are infected and are showing only mild symptoms. Others are waiting on labs to process their test results. A shortage of test kits has also delayed getting many people tested.

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Health

Natural gas company Spire suspends disconnections, late fees until at least May

Eddie Burkhalter

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Natural gas company Spire on Wednesday announced that due to the COVID-19 pandemic its employees would now only do essential work, and disconnections and late fees for customers have been suspended until at least May 1. 

“If you’re worried about your natural gas bill, please give us a call. We’re always here for you, ready to work with you on finding the best solution for your situation,” The company said in a statement.

Spire’s full statement: 

To all those we serve,

As your local natural gas provider, we’ve been closely monitoring the evolving coronavirus events across the communities we serve—because we believe nothing is more important than your safety and the safety of Spire employees. This holds true whether we’re delivering energy to homes and businesses or doing our part in preventing the spread of the virus.

And that balance of delivering reliable energy while helping our communities stay safe is incredibly important right now, because we’re considered an essential utility and part of our nation’s vital energy infrastructure.

As an “essential service” designated by government authorities, we’ll continue to operate even under a state of emergency and any shelter in place orders.

So, when you see our field technicians working, know that we’re there to provide you with the energy you need to cook homemade dinners and warm your homes while our communities shelter in place.

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Simply put, these are uncertain times. And as we face them together, your trust in us is important.

So, I’d like to share with you what we’ve been doing to take action and care for each other and all those we serve.

For you, our customers

We’ve adjusted the services we provide, performing only essential work. This will help protect both you and our team members as we continue to closely monitor developments. The CDC is regularly updating their guidelines and best practices, and we are following these guidelines carefully.

We’ve officially suspended late fees, disconnection notices and disconnections until at least May 1. If you’re worried about your natural gas bill, please give us a call. We’re always here for you, ready to work with you on finding the best solution for your situation.

We’ve provided field employees with the tools they need to do their jobs, requiring everyone to maintain social distancing and safety guidelines provided by the CDC. And, we’ve increased the frequency of deep cleanings of our equipment and at our facilities. 

 For our employees

Because we live and work in the communities we serve, caring for our employees has an impact on our communities at large. That’s why we:

  • Enacted our preparedness response plan, which defines how we adjust the service we provide in response to the changing situation
  • Canceled all travel and events
  • Provided emergency leave for employees who are unable to work from home and are quarantined, caring for a loved one who is quarantined or taking care of a child or family member because of coronavirus-related school and child care facility closures
  • Ensured all employees who can work from home do so

As an essential service that you depend on, we’ll continue to monitor our processes as the situation evolves. And, if you’d like more information about all we’re doing to keep Spire employees and communities safe, visit us 24/7 at  SpireEnergy.com/Coronavirus.

Through it all, our promise to you is that we’re focused on the safety and well-being of those we serve.

We’re in this together.

 

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Health

The numbers show COVID-19 could cripple Alabama’s hospitals

Chip Brownlee

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Even in the best-case scenarios, we could run out of ICU beds. In the worst, thousands could be without a bed. Will this crisis cripple our hospitals?

Read more here

 

 

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Health

Top Alabama hospital official fears a “tsunami” of cases, ventilator shortage

Chip Brownlee

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The head of Alabama’s Hospital Association said Thursday that he fears the coronavirus outbreak could overwhelm Alabama’s health care system if the public doesn’t take social-distancing guidelines seriously.

“My big, big concern is as this tsunami approaches us in the coming weeks, we are going to be challenged to have enough ventilators for the state at large,” said Dr. Donald Williamson, President and CEO of the Alabama Hospital Association.

Concerns about whether hospitals across the country can handle an influx of COVID-19 cases on top of their normal patient load have been growing as the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow at an exponential rate.

Across the United States, 13,000 cases have been confirmed through testing. Because testing across the country has been limited, there are sure to be more cases.

The number of cases in the state jumped by 50 percent on Thursday. At close of business on Wednesday, 51 cases were confirmed. By Thursday evening, the state had 77 confirmed cases of the virus, prompting Gov. Kay Ivey and State Health Officer Scott Harris to issue a new statewide directive that closed beaches, limited restaurants and bars to take-out and delivery service, and banned gatherings of more than 25 people.

“The challenge Dr. Harris has is the actions of today can’t be aimed at today’s 68 cases,” Williamson said. “They have to be aimed at what is already infected that we’re going to see two weeks from now.” The virus has an incubation period of about five days, but up to two weeks, meaning people could already be infected with the virus but not showing symptoms yet.

About 20 percent of those infected with the novel virus will require hospitalization, and about 5 percent require intensive care, and hospital officials and public health experts fear the increased load could cripple hospitals.

“Ideally you’d like to reduce the number of cases,” Williamson said. “But really what you’re trying to do is make sure the surge on the health care system is never so great that you can’t respond—you keep the demand low enough that you can actually continue to provide service.”

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In New York and other states like Washington with large outbreaks, hospitals are already facing strain. Doctors in Seattle are being asked to re-use masks that are only supposed to be used once, and some are having to make homemade masks that aren’t nearly as effective. Officials in New York state are beginning to make plans to convert college dormitories and other facilities into make-shift hospital rooms, and President Donald Trump has said he would send a U.S. Navy ship, the USNS Comfort, to New York City to help provide care for sick patients.

In Alabama, hospitals have been ordered to cancel elective procedures to prepare for the next few weeks, when officials fear the cases here could skyrocket. Supplies are already running low in some places, particularly personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and face shields. Officials are asking private health care providers to prepare for the possibility that they might need to give up health care supplies to hospitals treating COVID-19 patients.

Jefferson County, Alabama’s hardest his county so far, issued new guidance Thursday, too, which prohibits gatherings of 10 or more people. The county has 34 cases as of Thursday, and the number is expected to grow as more test results come in. The Birmingham area also has the fewest open hospital beds available. At any point in time, about 90 percent of the Birmingham area’s 7,000 hospital beds are in use.

In an effort to blunt the spread of the disease, starting Friday at 5 p.m., all nonessential services in Jefferson County will be closed. That order includes entertainment venues, recreation facilities, swimming pools and spas, nail salons and spas, casinos, museums, body art facilities or tattoo parlors, performing art centers, social clubs, formal events, proms, concert halls, massage parlors and fraternity/sorority meeting events.

Williamson said Thursday that the state’s hospitals have about 1,344 ventilators on hand. On any given day, about 550 are in use on average. That means the state has a surge capacity of only 800 ventilators.

Estimates from the Harvard Global Health Institute suggest that if 20 percent of adults are infected in Alabama, 34,370 people would need ICU care. 158,906 people would need to be hospitalized. Of course, all of those hospitalizations wouldn’t be at once, but if cases surge all at once, hospitals could be overwhelmed and would need to ration care.

“And that’s a challenge not only in Italy, where they have had to make unbelievable decisions about who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t, but in our own country, in Seattle, they’re facing the challenge of not enough ventilators,” Williamson said.

Across Alabama, hospitals have about 14,900 beds. At any given time, only 5,000 beds are available. Even fewer intensive care beds are available.

“So I am very concerned about that over the long haul stressing our health care system and that’s why social distancing is so important,” Williamson said.

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