EUFAULA, Ala. (AP) — Travelers heading through southeast Alabama to Florida Panhandle beaches have a four-lane road the entire way except for a half-mile stretch in Eufaula. That section, gracefully lined by Southern mansions and giant oaks, narrows to two lanes.
Now the town finds itself in a battle of Southern charm vs. traffic congestion as the state makes plans to widen U.S. 431 and remove some trees.
City officials and historic preservationists say it would strike a huge blow to the city's heritage — and heritage-related tourism that helps drive the economy in town of 13,000 situated on the Chattahoochee River.
"It is one of the most photographed streetscapes around. It is an iconic image for Alabama," said Mike Bunn, executive director of the Historic Chattahoochee Commission.
State Transportation Director John Cooper said Alabama has spent $150 million to complete the last four-lane stretches of U.S. 431 from Interstate 85 to the Florida line. The half-mile stretch through Eufaula's historic district is the only part of the 137-mile highway that remains two lanes.
"From a transportation standpoint we have spent too much on this corridor and this corridor is too important to the state, particularly the southeast corner of the state, not to pursue trying to eliminate this bottleneck," Cooper said in an interview.
U.S. 431 carries lots of trucks and tourists, particularly from the Atlanta area. As they approach Eufaula, the four-lane highway divides into two single lanes separated by medians 30 to 50 feet wide. The medians are filled with crepe myrtles, azaleas and giant live oaks that create a canopy with the huge oaks in front of mansions from the 1800s. Those mansions anchor a historic district with nearly 700 buildings.
The historic homes were filmed for the 2002 movie "Sweet Home Alabama" to serve as Reese Witherspoon's hometown. The street is also the busiest two-lane stretch of road in Alabama, averaging 21,000 vehicles a day, Cooper said.
Mayor Jack Tibbs said traffic does back up on busy weekends for beach tourism, but the town uses police officers to keep the vehicles moving. He said the tourism created by the historic district is too valuable to the town to risk running four lanes of traffic through it and destroying its beauty. "It is our calling card," he said.
In April, transportation workers drove stakes into the medians to show the maximum amount that could be cut away for a four-lane road. It varies from about a foot to 6 feet on each side, but Cooper said the average along the route is 5 feet on each side. He predicts tree damage will be minimal.
City officials disagree and cite a university study to back up their view. "It's going to cut off feeder roots and kill the trees eventually," town horticulturist Sherry Burchett said.
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