Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle prefers cheaper Alabama engineering firm for second Wal-Mart traffic study

Tommy Battle Election NightView full sizeHuntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. (Bob Gathany | 

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle is asking the City Council to select Alabama-based Volkert Associates to perform a second traffic study on the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter at Mason Plaza.

Battle said he told each of the five council members Friday afternoon that he would prefer to hire Volkert over VRPA Technologies of California, the engineering firm recommended by the Midtown Huntsville Association.

At its meeting Thursday night, the council passed a resolution sponsored by Councilman Bill Kling expressing its intent to use VRPA for the traffic study.

But Battle said Volkert can do the study faster and for less money than VRPA, which is not currently licensed to do business in Alabama.

Volkert is proposing to charge Huntsville “a little over $7,000″ compared to VRPA’s estimate of between $40,000 and $50,000, said Battle. The VRPA study would also not be finished before the city is legally required to issue Wal-Mart a building permit for the new Supercenter, he said.

“There’s no sense spending $40,000 on a study that would come in after the fact,” said Battle. “It would very much be a hollow gesture.”

Midtown Huntsville Association members requested the city hire VRPA for the second Wal-Mart traffic study because it has no Alabama ties. The association, largely comprised of residents of the Piedmont neighborhood behind Mason Plaza, is skeptical of an earlier Wal-Mart-financed study by Skipper Consulting of Birmingham that concluded a new Supercenter would not overload Memorial Parkway.

Mason Plaza is on the east side of the Parkway between Drake Avenue and Airport Road.

Proposed Huntsville Walmart.jpgView full sizeAn architect’s rendering of the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter at Mason Plaza south of downtown Huntsville. (Courtesy Wal-Mart)

Midtown Huntsville Association member Tom Thrailkill said his group prefers VRPA because it is not part of the “usual process” of engineering firms hired by large retailers to perform traffic studies that are generally approved by the Alabama Department of Transportation and city officials.

“I’m not saying anybody is doing anything unethical,” Thrailkill said Friday. “We were just trying to bring some independence to this process. The bottom line is that the city wants (Wal-Mart) to happen; they don’t want to buck the process.”

During a community meeting on Sept. 18, Battle told Midtown members that the city would pay for an independent traffic study. He said Friday he believes Volkert Associates would deliver “a fair and impartial” report.

“If the neighborhood feels like there needs to be a second study to check facts, we’re fine with doing that,” said Battle. “But we need to do it in a cost-effective way.”

Battle said he asked council members to let him know Monday if they support his recommendation to hire Volkert. If a majority of the council agrees, the city could sign a contract with Volkert next week.

Kling, who represents the Piedmont neighborhood, said he plans to talk to Midtown Huntsville Association members over the weekend to gauge their feelings about hiring Volkert. A University of Alabama in Huntsville professor who is a licensed engineer is another possibility for the study, he said.

“What we’re all looking for is something that the neighborhood will buy into,” said Kling.

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