Leaders in Tuscaloosa are not happy with early design plans from the Alabama Department of Transportation for the replacement of the highly trafficked Woolsey Finnell Bridge over the Black Warrior River.

As the Thread has reported previously, former US Senator Richard Shelby stuck a $100 million earmark into the $1.7 trillion 2023 Omnibus Appropriations Bill that will replace the existing four-lane bridge with an all-new six-lane bridge in the same place.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox summarized the scope of that job Tuesday.

"The Woolsey Finnel bridge replacement project is going to be one of the more consequential infrastructure projects in the city's history," he said.

Because work on the project must begin before 2026, ALDOT has prioritized the project and, after a public comment period that ended last month, they have shared their first plans for the final shape of the work.

Just one issue - those plans aren't very good, according to city staff working in Tuscaloosa, and present a whole fistful of challenges for both municipal workers and everyday motorists.

Multiple department heads spoke through their concerns about the bridge project Tuesday during a meeting of the city council's public projects committee, with the chief criticisms coming from Chief Operating Officer Brendan Moore, Executive Director of Urban Development Ashley Crites and Mayor Walt Maddox.

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Harming Businesses and Stifling Development

Probably the biggest concern raised by city staff is ALDOT's plan to remove a road connected to the Campus Drive exit off McFarland Boulevard completely.

The exit, amateurishly outlined in red below, directly connects McFarland Boulevard via Julia Tutwiler Drive to the Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools, Baumhower's Victory Grille, the Hampton Inn and the new Popstroke putting courses.

(Google Maps)
(Google Maps)

As part of ALDOT's plan to replace the Woolsey Finnell Bridge, that road connecting the McFarland exit to Julia Tutwiler Drive would be removed entirely. Motorists would have to get to the schools from Campus Drive and could only access the restaurant, hotel and PopStroke from Helen Keller Boulevard.


City COO Brendan Moore said during two meetings about this move, ALDOT did not provide any crash data to show why this change is necessary and even that ALDOT leaders who work in Tuscaloosa argued with their design engineers in Montgomery about it, but as of Wednesday, the plan still calls for this access to be removed.

City staff says that will hurt the restaurant, hotel and putting course and could stifle future investment in the extremely lucrative undeveloped land on that side of Highway 82.

Moore also said ALDOT showed no interest in talking with the city about any other way to reduce traffic in that area if that's what the state was worried about.

"There was no logic or reason, no questions being answered," Moore said. "I know that sounds extreme but [...] we had four of five city staff members there and these are the answers that were provided."

Mayor Maddox also noted that the University of Alabama has currently stalled plans to build a multi-hundred-million-dollar basketball arena just off McFarland Boulevard and ALDOT's current plans don't account for that future feature.

(University of Alabama)
(University of Alabama)

"That arena will be a huge economic development benefit for that entire area and this is our one chance to get it right," Maddox said.

A "Tacked On" Riverwalk

Another point of friction is how ALDOT's plan fails to jibe with the city's ambitious plans for an eventually 10-mile Riverwalk taking residents and visitors from West Tuscaloosa along the southern banks of the Black Warrior before crossing on the ALDOT Bridge and linking up with the to-be-expanded Northern Riverwalk and Randall Family Park.

ALDOT's proposed pedestrian access simply does not measure up to the quality of the rest of the Riverwalk, Ashley Crites and Mayor Maddox said, and could also be unsafe.

"You can understand my disappointment - which seems so personal, but I'm going to go with disappointment - because you've got a group of professionals who as an afterthought, quite frankly, tacked on a pedestrian connector across the river and ignored some plans that the city of Tuscaloosa already has for a Riverwalk," Crites said.

"This appears to be driven more out of the Montgomery design bureau than it is here," Maddox said. "Because there was no thought given to the tens of millions of dollars that have been invested for pedestrian and bicycle access here."

The core problem is that ALDOT's pedestrian and bicycle access plans are strictly about utility. Crites said the Riverwalk is about more than that.

"The [state's] multi-use path connector is not designed for people who want to use it, it's been designed for people who have to use it, people whose feet and their bikes are their only mode of transportation," Crites said. "We've created this expansive network of multi-use paths. One day we will have 10 miles connecting from east to west, north to south, designed for folks who WANT to use it, and that should be our standard."

Crites also said ALDOT's proposal does not link to the Randall Family Trailhead, where the Northern Riverwalk begins now. Instead, it terminates at the corner of Highway 82 and Rice Mine Road.

"Which is fine, if you like to be hit by cars," Crites said.

"Someone will have to pick up the burden and build the rest of the riverwalk connection point all the way around the Rice Mine Road loop property and across the street," she continued. "You'll have to play a little bit of Frogger to get across to the Randall Family Trailhead."

It Just Isn't Pretty

Crites also said the proposed bridge lacks beautification features like the Crimson Arches over the Luther Stancel Pate III Memorial Bridge or the LED lighting ALDOT installed under the I-20 bridge in Birmingham.

Crites said the ALDOT proposal for Tuscaloosa fails to be much more than functional when this moment could be used for something grander.

"Creating a sense of place is an opportunity I think we've missed out on in this location with the bridge design," she said. "From a 'Project of Distinction' standpoint, I don't believe it's hitting our marks."


There are some other issues with the project - the city will have to relocate some water lines, which could prove to be expensive but completely reimbursable - but Maddox and Crites said more than anything, staff just wants the bridge to be all it can be.

"This is a fantastic project, a fantastic investment," Maddox said. "What I've stressed to our local leadership is, 'Let's get these things right - we won't get another chance at this for 100 years, so let's make certain we get this absolutely correct. I'm hopeful they will take our input."

Maddox encouraged the council to contact state lawmakers and have them push ALDOT's Montgomery leadership to stay at the table and collaborate on a plan to be proud of.

"I would hope they would treat us in the way they treated the city of Birmingham with the great work they did in preparation for the redo of Malfunction Junction," Maddox said. "ALDOT constructed a city walk for Birmingham, ALDOT did RGB lighting - they went the extra mile and we hope we would be treated in the same way."

"Hoover, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa County are the only places I know that have made significant investments in ALDOT Roads - we do ours through TCRIC," Maddox said. "We have been a partner with ALDOT as a community and we hope they will treat us as a partner on this project."

For more coverage of this project as it continues, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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