BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- Residents of the Thomas neighborhood in western Birmingham for decades have complained about the single entrance into the area.
Second Street has the dubious distinction as the "one way in, one way out" for the neighborhood -- and also is crossed by railroad tracks.
Finally, a study just under way by the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham could lead to improvements, including a much sought-after alternative route.
"We're going to look at a plan for the neighborhood, and a bridge may be one of those solutions," said Steve Ostaseski, a principal planner with RPC. "Everyone has their favorite solution, and that's one of the reasons for having a plan. Everyone gets to articulate their solution."
The plan will focus on options for new roads or a bridge, and sources to pay for those projects.
The RPC's early estimates for a bridge are $8.35 million, including engineering, land acquisition and construction.
Thomas neighborhood president Alonzo Darrow welcomed the study, calling access improvements an issue of both safety and development of the area.
"Mainly what we have are senior citizens, and at any time you might need some emergency service," Darrow said, noting the frequently train-blocked entrance. "People do not want to move in here because you've got one way in and one way out. You're going to work, and there's a train on the tracks."
Councilman Steven Hoyt said the study is the step needed to eventually get funding to improve the neighborhood.
"It's finally coming to fruition," said Hoyt, whose district includes the neighborhood. "This issue is a public safety issue. I don't think in this modern society we should be talking about things that happen in rural areas happening in the inner city."
Ostaseski said his agency is in the early stages of the project, gathering data.
"We need to understand the neighborhood as well as Mr. Darrow understands the neighborhood," he said. "If we don't understand the dynamic, then it's hard to understand what people are trying to tell us."
Ostaseski expects the project to take about eight months and be completed by the end of the year.
While Darrow prefers a new road over the bridge option, he remains open to any relief.
"Let's talk about the cost and what makes sense," he said. "I think it will happen, but we've all got to get on the same page about what we want to do."
Ostaseski said all options remain open as planners begin their evaluation.
"To go in there with a preconceived notion on any topic wouldn't be valid," he said. "The city is working on their comprehensive plan. That is the bigger picture, and this is pretty much nuts and bolts on the neighborhood level."
More than roads and bridges, the plan will also address other issues facing the neighborhood and suggestions to improve the area.
Once vehicle access improves, Ostaseski said, options for revitalization and development will increase.
RPC's neighborhood plan for Thomas will be a similar to a document completed in 2010 for Collegeville, a northern Birmingham neighborhood that also has a problem with access and railroads blocking major entrances.
Collegeville's neighborhood plan, drafted by RPC and the Birmingham Metropolitan Planning Organization, became a blueprint for several pending projects there, including a $12.3 million project to erect pedestrian and vehicle bridges in 2013 and 2014.
Hoyt hopes to use the Thomas plan as a starting point for similar results.
"The people in Thomas are really depending on the city to do something about this condition," he said. "Not only are we looking at the bridge component; we're also looking at housing, where there has been an impediment because of one way in, one way out."