While various infrastructure issues have plagued the Black Belt of Alabama for decades, one problem that is often left out of the conversation is the lack of accessible sidewalks. For those living in rural areas, though, sidewalks are the most important transportation-related facility, according to a Department of Transportation survey.
In the coming months, Auburn University will address this need in 10 Black Belt communities.
Auburn’s Safe Transportation for Every Pedestrian In Underserved Communities Program plans to utilize $1.3 million in federal funding to design construction plans for sidewalk improvement projects in Demopolis, Eufaula, Eutaw, Enterprise, Georgiana, Greenville, Opp, Selma, Troy and Tuskegee.
“In a lot of our historically underserved or under-resourced communities, their pedestrian infrastructure has not been, more or less, touched for decades,” Alabama Transportation Assistance Program director Rod Turochy said. “What we will do is the community engagement planning and the design upgrades their pedestrian facilities need to make them current and complete.”
In many of these municipalities, sidewalk systems are incomplete, crumbling and failing to meet ADA compliance. Fixing the sidewalks will make these communities more walkable and convenient for pedestrians, but Turochy said safety is the main concern.
Traffic fatalities have seen a dramatic increase in the United States over the last decade with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reporting the highest number of total traffic deaths since 2007 last year. A significant portion of those deaths were pedestrians hit by cars.
“Many of those deaths are preventable,” Turochy said. “It’s about making sure that people don't have to step out and walk in the street, making sure that it's completely ADA compliant, so that someone who's confined to a wheelchair, for example, doesn't have any challenges that the rest of us who might have full mobility wouldn’t face.”
Pedestrian safety is not a uniquely rural issue, but the Auburn team decided to focus on these 10 communities because they fall within “areas of persistent poverty.” Also, seven of the municipalities are located in counties that rank in the top 25% of the state for number of pedestrian-involved car crashes.
The Auburn program has partnered with local nonprofit The Fifty Fund to complete the community engagement aspect of the project, and they have already begun the process in Troy.
Funding for these projects will come from the U.S. Department of Transportation in the form of Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity discretionary grants, also known as the RAISE program.
In total, Alabama will receive $18.4 million through RAISE, divided between the Auburn sidewalk projects and the City of Tuscaloosa’s University Boulevard Corridor Project. The latter will receive the majority of funds, $17.1 million.
The Tuscaloosa project encompasses more facets of infrastructure, including street light installation, bike lane construction and improvements to curbs, gutters and drainage systems.
“The City of Tuscaloosa could not be more thrilled to be among the recipients of the Department of Transportation’s RAISE Grant. These funds will give us the opportunity to make improvements to one of the major arteries connecting Tuscaloosa, thereby providing better connectivity across our community,” said Mayor Walt Maddox.
These funds are part of nearly $1 billion in RAISE grants distributed this year, and that money is split equally between urban and rural improvement projects throughout the country.
“We’re proud to support these great projects that will improve infrastructure, strengthen supply chains, make us safer, advance equity, and combat climate change,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a press release. “As in past years, we received far more applications than we could fund: this cycle saw about a ten-to-one ratio of requests to available dollars."
Ultimately, the grants will fund 90 infrastructure improvement operations throughout the next year.
Hadley Hitson covers the rural South for the Montgomery Advertiser and Report for America. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.