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Investing in the future

Publisher’s note: Interstate highways pass through major cities throughout America, shaping dynamics for generations to come. Birmingham has the rare opportunity to correct mistakes of the past and create a new future with the rebuilding of I-59 as it intersects with downtown proper. Below is a commentary by Weld for Birmingham publisher Mark Kelly.


By Mark Kelly, publisher- Weld for Birmingham

Join me, just for a few moments, and let’s picture the possible future of Interstate 20/59 through downtown Birmingham. More correctly, let us picture a future without the physical and psychological barrier that 20/59 has been since it was constructed more than 40 years ago, its very routing and location a tangible, immovable symbol of the racial and economic division that has kept Birmingham from claiming its birthright as a great American city.

Immovable until now, that is. Now, Birmingham has the opportunity to rectify a colossal mistake by removing it and putting something better — something much, much better — in its place. The only thing standing in the way is the Alabama Department of Transportation and its insistence that expanding the highway through downtown — catering to through traffic at local drivers’ expense — would be somehow beneficial for the city.

Actually, I’ll correct myself again: ALDOT does not care what is beneficial for Birmingham. For most of this year — since the department’s initial proposal for 20/59 became public last spring — ALDOT has been pushing a plan that no one likes. To be fair, they have nodded toward concerns expressed by business and neighborhood groups  — the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, the Norwood neighborhood and businesses in the Norwood Industrial District — by making some changes in the proposal.

Mostly, though, ALDOT has remained intent on keeping the 20/59 project on a fast track. They are doing so despite the fact that their supposed study of various alternative plans did not include anything like a comprehensive analysis of economic impacts that might accrue from each — something ALDOT Director John Cooper admitted at least implicitly when I asked him about it last week, following a meeting in which he presented a substantially revised plan for the interstate to Birmingham Mayor William Bell.

“We looked at the cost associated with property acquisition from people and businesses that would be displaced,” Cooper said, noting that his department has spent “more than $100,000” on studies. When I explained that I meant an analysis of the relative positiveimpacts over time of the ALDOT plan versus possible alternatives — most especially, demolishing the downtown portion of the interstate, replacing it with a ground-level boulevard tied into the existing street grid, and rerouting it northward around the city via the current Finley Boulevard — he questioned the need for such data at this stage of the project.

“In the short run, our focus is on rebuilding the bridges downtown that are reaching the end of their useful life and need to be replaced right away,” Cooper said. “We can look at how one or more alternative routes could be pursued in the future, but in any case, you’re not going to not have an interstate there for some time.”

I don’t believe this has to be the case. What I do believe is that if such economic analysis is undertaken — as Mayor Bell now says it should be — it will show that the positive impact of the teardown/reroute/boulevard plan over the next half-century will make the cost of building it now one of the best infrastructure investments ever made in Alabama.

So think with me for a minute here. Consider the creation of a new gateway into downtown from the west, an east-west boulevard lined with new business and residential construction, renovations of historic properties, and lots and lots of greenery. Tied into the existing street grid, it provides convenient access to points south and north — including those long cut off from the city by their location north of the interstate.

At the eastern edge of downtown, the boulevard intersects with Red Mountain Expressway, which also has been brought to ground level at this point. Around the intersection, once dominated by a spaghetti network of bridges and overpasses, the equivalent of 13 blocks has been made available for redevelopment. A few more blocks north, enhanced access to Norwood has led to the renovation of the former Carraway Medical Center campus. Where the boulevard ends, the roadway continues at ground level along the former path of 20/59, to join the rerouted highway near the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth airport.

The rerouting itself will create positive impacts as well. Strategically placed exits will create potential for economic activity in North Birmingham, as well as enhancing connectivity to and from Collegeville, which has long been “landlocked” by railroad crossings. In terms of land acquisition, landowners in the new roadway’s path would have an opportunity to sell their properties for more money than they ever would get otherwise.

Or we can have the ALDOT plan, which does nothing for Birmingham except perpetuate a colossal mistake. Of course, you can argue that worrying about the economic vitality of Birmingham is not in ALDOT’s job description. Their job is to move traffic, presumably as safely and efficiently as possible.

You might even be right about that, which is well and good as far as it goes. But there are people to whom ALDOT must be accountable — Mayor Bell, the Jefferson County legislative delegation, Gov. Robert Bentley, and not least, citizens who are concerned about the future of their city. There are means of leveraging that accountability into cooperation on settling on an alternative — and the means of paying for it — that works for everyone, but most especially the people of Birmingham.

It’s time for ALDOT to do the right thing.


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