By Gary Lloyd
PALMERDALE — U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus pulled out an old photo he said he discovered while cleaning out his desk, a photo from 40 years ago.
Bachus joked that he was wearing the same suit Monday as in that old photo. The suit hasn’t worn out. The Northern Beltline will not wear out, either, he said.
“It’s going to be here for generations and generations and generations,” Bachus told a crowd gathered at the groundbreaking for the Northern Beltline in Palmerdale on Monday.
The initial project will connect Alabama Highway 79 to Alabama Highway 75. The entire project will consist of a 52-mile multi-lane highway that will stretch from Interstate 59 in northeast Jefferson County to the Interstate 459 interchange with I-20/59 near Bessemer. The contract for the first phase of the project was awarded to Wright Brothers Construction Company, Inc. of Charleston, Tenn., last year. The estimated cost for the first phase of the project is $46 million and is expected to be completed by mid fall 2016.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley spoke Monday morning to a crowd of legislators, reporters, commissioners and mayors. He said his first priority as governor was to create jobs for Alabamians.
“The Northern Beltline will certainly do that,” Bentley said.
Bentley said the University of Alabama Center for Business and Economic Research estimated that 21,000 permanent jobs will be supported by the Northern Beltline in the future. Bentley said the Northern Beltline is “very important” to him.
Bachus said the Northern Beltline provides an “exciting future” for people in the area.
“This is a great day for our state and this region,” Bachus said.
Jefferson County Commission President David Carrington said he sees future economic development and job creation for years to come. He called the day a “historic milestone” and a day of “celebration.”
The day did not come without opposition. The Southern Environmental Law Center and Black Warrior Riverkeeper released a statement Monday.
“To continue investing in an unnecessary road that will cross and permanently alter streams and wetlands in 125 places, impacting two major sources of local drinking water, is nothing to celebrate,” said Nelson Brooke, the Black Warrior Riverkeeper. “Today’s event is merely a distraction from the fact that the Northern Beltline remains a wasteful and destructive diversion from the Birmingham area’s pressing transportation needs, such as the I-59/20 upgrade and major traffic issues on I-65 and Highway 280.”
Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Gil Rogers said the lack of funding to get the project from start to finish illustrates that the project is a “bad idea” for the region and poor investment for taxpayers.
“Not only is this project needlessly damaging the Black Warrior and Cahaba River watersheds, but its $5.4-billion price tag would use all of Alabama’s federal funding for much needed road improvements and maintenance projects around the state,” Rogers said. “Other states are sensibly shelving large projects that are far less costly than the Beltline in the face of economic realities.”
The SELC has filed two federal lawsuits on behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper in 2011 and 2013. The 2011 suit charged that the responsible agencies failed to provide a necessary analysis of alternative transportation investments as required by law, and to justify the environmental impacts and tremendous economic cost of the Beltline. The SELC filed suit in 2013 challenging a permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Northern Beltline’s first phase of construction, charging improper segmentation of the project and failure to follow the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. A federal judge in January denied a request for a preliminary injunction that would block construction of the Northern Beltline.
A group of young students attended the groundbreaking Monday. Bentley noted their attendance.
“You all are going to enjoy (the Northern Beltline),” he said.
Contact Gary Lloyd at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @GaryALloyd.