Hermitage Drive bridge opens, meets safety objective

Construction crews completed the almost yearlong project of the new, wider Hermitage Drive bridge just in time for classes to begin.

Florence Mayor Mickey Haddock cut the ribbon to signal the new structure’s opening Monday, Aug. 11 — nine days before classes began at UNA and one week before Florence City Schools resumed.

“The opening will provide direct access to UNA and Braly Stadium, and it will make it a lot easier for commuter students to get to class and for buses to take students to the schools,” said Florence City Council President Dick Jordan. “It’s been closed since last year, and we have met the objective of opening it before school starts.”

City Engineer Bill Batson said the project was worth the wait because the bridge is now safer for pedestrians and drivers.

The old, narrow two-lane bridge did not provide enough room for emergency vehicles, buses and other large automobiles to safely pass simultaneously, and with 9,000 to 10,000 vehicles crossing each day, it was time for something to be done, Batson said.

He said although the bridge is still two-lane, it is much wider.

The city’s records do not date back to when the old bridge was built, said Councilman Barry Morris, whose District 4 includes the new bridge.

“The late 1920s is the best I’ve been able to come up with for when it was constructed,” Morris said.

The new structure also features a barricaded sidewalk that extends a few hundred feet from either side of the bridge.

“During football season, when fans would have to park down Hermitage away from the stadium, it was unsettling to walk through there, especially after dark,” Morris said. “I’m glad it opened before school and the football games started.”

Junior Caroline Thomas praised the increased safety of the new bridge.

“I’ve seen people trying to cross on their bikes before, and it scared me to death,” Thomas said. “With it being wider, I’m considering riding my bike to campus.”

She said she lives at Ivy Green on Helton Drive, making Hermitage the easiest route to campus.

“Obviously the detour was longer, but you were also going through a lot of stop signs, you just had to turn, turn, turn, and it was just nerve racking,” she said.

Morris called the project a “vast improvement to the city” that will benefit the citizens of Florence.

He said the council’s next objective is to find funding to extend the sidewalk east toward Helton Drive and west toward Braly Stadium.

Having the project completed before Wood Avenue is reconstructed will help decongest traffic in the area, Batson said.

“The precipitator for reconstructing Wood Avenue is to keep the street from falling apart, but the waterline is about 100 years old, so the city will also replace it while they’re in there,” he said. “It just makes sense to do both at the same time.”

He said the traffic flow on Wood varies from 7,000 to 10,000 vehicles per day between Tuscaloosa Street and Seven Points each day, so if Hermitage Drive and Wood Avenue were closed, traveling in the area would be much worse.

The Wood Avenue reconstruction is expected to begin early next year.