Treacherous travels

Sometimes it can seem like driving around Birmingham is little more than circumventing a collection of hazards and obstacles. On most any route through the city you are sure to encounter potholes and pavement bubbles, mistimed lights, heavy traffic and poorly designed intersections.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the American Society of Civil Engineers, 19 percent of Alabama’s roads are in “poor” condition. In metro Birmingham, the number grows to 21 percent. According to Mike D. Smith of Al.com, TRIP estimates that hazards cost Alabama drivers $3.1 billion each year—that’s $1,562 for each driver.

“The road system in Alabama seems to be very poor when compared to that of my home state,” said Barlow Marriott, an Atlanta native studying at Samford University. According to Main Street, who used information from the Reason Foundation and the Federal Highway Administration, Georgia has the 10th -best roads in the country, and the best roads in the nation in some other sub-categories.

“The one thing that bugs me the most about Birmingham roads is the way that traffic coagulates,” Marriott said. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of lights that are timed properly in Birmingham compared to Atlanta.”

The Highway Trust Fund, a federal program, is most responsible for funding road repairs in the state, but currently there is only enough funding remaining to last through May of 2015.

Even with this uncertainty overshadowing the national fund, Jefferson County is depending on its road budget increasing with time. The budget has shrunk to less than half of what it once was, and overwhelmed with projects, the county has been forced to prioritize its construction and repair projects based on direct impact to the safety of travelers.

Many major improvements in Homewood—such as directional ramps connecting Lakeshore Drive to I-65, a median on Green Springs Highway, and the conversion of Oxmoor Road to a cul-de-sac—were proposed and designed as early as 2007, but few projects have seen completion or even the beginning of work.

Many minor road hazards only receive enough attention for a temporary fix, putting the repair off only to return to later with some time. Potholes on low-traffic roadways, for example, are typically filled with gravel, which is slowly kicked back out onto the pavement by tires. “They don’t fill them, they just put rocks in them,” said Dallas native and Birmingham resident Blake Boyd. “It’s annoying when rocks are everywhere.”

There’s little action motorists can take to improve their road conditions, so hunkering down and coping seems to be the best option for the foreseeable future. Proper vehicle maintenance is crucial, particularly concerning tire pressure and tread.

“Air pressure is critical,” said Wayne Pittman, chief of Samford University’s police department. “The manufacturer’s recommendations are right on the outside of the tire. Follow those recommendations.”

Pittman also advises motorists to check their tire tread routinely. One old trick is to stick an upside-down penny in the tread. “If you can see Abe Lincoln’s head, you need to get new tires,” Pittman said. “Don’t run them too bald, because in rough weather you can lose traction.”

Potholes are arguably the most common hazards that Birmingham drivers encounter, regardless of season. “Usually, if you hit a pothole, you’re going to have a front-end alignment problem,” Pittman said. “If it’s a big pothole, you can also dent a rim. It can do some damage to your vehicle.”

Drivers will often overlook small bumps in their tire walls. Although these bumps are miniscule, they can be a symptom of a significant threat to passenger safety. “More than likely, it’s the cord that’s separated and it’s a bulge come out,” Pittman explained. An expert should inspect such a tire as quickly as possible, and will usually recommend replacement.

Motorists that encounter a new road hazard are encouraged to report it. State highway and interstate issues should be reported to ALDOT, and city-maintained roads should be reported to the corresponding city’s government.