Tricks and treachery are the practice of fools, that don’t have brains enough to be honest.
– Benjamin Franklin
On Thursday evening, April 23, a crowd that ultimately numbered in excess of 100 trekked into the Fountain Heights Recreation Center. They were there for a public involvement meeting hosted by the Alabama Department of Transportation.
The meeting was for the purpose of collecting comments about ALDOT’s plans to replace the bridges on Interstate 20/59 through downtown Birmingham and, concurrently, to expand the capacity of the highway itself. This was the latest of numerous such meetings ALDOT has held in the urban neighborhoods — mostly low-income, mostly black — that will be most affected by both the construction project and the immediate and long-term impacts — economic, environmental, social and cultural — on citizens who live in close proximity to the interstate, and the community as a whole.
That’s the idea, anyway. Presumably. Ostensibly. Theoretically. Government of, by and for the people; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; e pluribus unum, and all that. God bless America and the great, sovereign state of Alabama. Power to the People, right on.
You probably will not be surprised when I tell you that this is not, in reality, how it works. Not in Alabama. And most certainly not with ALDOT, which has a well-earned reputation for autocracy in its dealings with local governments, advocacy groups, private citizens and anyone whom its leadership perceives as standing in the way of building any road ALDOT cares to pay for.
Like most of the meetings ALDOT has conducted in connection with its 20/59 plan, the one on April 23 was held in a facility located in a working-class neighborhood, beginning at a time of day — four in the afternoon — when many, if not most, working residents of the neighborhood might find it difficult, if not prohibitive, to attend. The same goes for concerned citizens who might like to attend in hopes of learning more about the project, but have to commute home to locations outside the city proper.
Plus, the Fountain Heights rec center is not that easy to get to, nestled as it is just beneath the overpass of I-65 North. For anyone not familiar with the neighborhood — it lies along the rolling hills and hollows just above Birmingham’s central business district, cradled in the elbow formed by the northeast junction of 65 and 20/59 — getting there is likely to require some navigation. In this regard, though, I don’t think it uncharitable to say navigating these streets might be particularly daunting for that breed of suburbanite who still cultivates a concept of “downtown Birmingham” as a place that subsists on the rough edge of civilization.
Still, the turnout on April 23 was impressive. But it was not impressive for the reason you might think, the straightforward, frankly American notion that here we have more than 100 concerned citizens who have come out to share with ALDOT their thoughts and feelings about this huge piece of public infrastructure that is being proposed. Would that such was the case. Unfortunately, what was impressive was much less the size of the crowd than, shall we say, its tone.
Now, this probably speaks more than anything else to my longevity in Birmingham, but I don’t mind saying that I have been to all manner of public and private events and gatherings in and around Fountain Heights. I have driven and rambled the neighborhood doing everything from visiting friends, to political canvassing, to indulging my wistful admiration for the buildings and streetscapes of Birmingham’s long-neglected neighborhoods.
(I hope you’ll indulge me for another moment here, as I cannot talk about Fountain Heights, now or ever, without mentioning Doris Powell. She was a longtime community and civic leader who loved Fountain Heights — and worked for it until the very moment of her passing, four years ago this month, when she collapsed at a neighborhood meeting she was attending. In every conversation I ever had with Doris, she spoke of the hopes and fears and wants and needs of the neighborhood and people she loved.)
I say all of this about my own experience with Fountain Heights by way of getting at the point, which is this: Never once have I seen so many white people in Fountain Heights. Not even close.
But there they were. They were men, most of them, and a considerable majority were definitively middle-aged. With only a few exceptions, they were clad in various tasteful striations of the increasingly broad sartorial category of “business casual.” Other than an outlier or two, when they approached the microphone to deliver their comments, they gave home addresses in the Over-the-Mountain suburbs.
But this was not all these people had in common. They were, in the very word used by several of them during their allotted two minutes each, scared.
What were they afraid of? Well, you fool, they live in mortal terror of Interstate 20/59.
Speaker after speaker — 22 of the total of 39 people who spoke — told of the horrors they encounter while driving through downtown, some of them several times a day (presumably at or under the posted speed limit, though none of them spoke of slowing down or stopping). I have not encountered these things on anything like a regular basis myself, but my purpose here is not to dispute the soul-gripping dread they testified to feeling at the mere prospect of changing lanes, merging into oncoming traffic, being struck by a runaway coil of steel, and even being stranded in traffic for an inconveniently long period of time on I-20/59 in downtown Birmingham.
Fearful as they were, however, these folks also were united in their stated belief that the solution to their problems — the silver bullet that will kill the monster that bedevils them — lies in ALDOT’s plan for 20/59. In fact, when they weren’t professing their fear, they were singing ALDOT’s praises. Here are some actual excerpts from some of their comments:
“I would like to thank ALDOT…”
“I trust ALDOT…”
“This plan is a good compromise. I’m appreciative to ALDOT for providing a safer way for those of us who have to travel through Birmingham daily.”
“I’m 100 percent in favor of this project, and I want to thank ALDOT for its outstanding work.”
Pretty glowing stuff, right? But are you ready for the punchline? The punchline is that these speakers had yet another thing in common, which is that they are employed by companies that benefit financially from their relationship with ALDOT — road contractors, real estate developers, major landowners, providers of construction materials, and so on. In fact, it turns out that, of the 22 people I have singled out as a group here, at least 13 work for the same company.
That would be Thompson Tractor Company, one of Alabama’s major suppliers of equipment used in the construction of roads. The company’s CEO, Michael Thompson, is active in the Coalition for Regional Transportation, an organization that is the primary advocate for construction of the $4.7 billion Northern Beltline, and which includes as members most of the key landowners along the proposed route of the beltline.
I guess it’s another of those things that comes as no surprise, but it’s still irritating to be reminded yet again that ALDOT doesn’t hold public involvement meetings because it cares what the public has to say. It holds them because it has to. No public involvement, no federal transportation funding.
At various stages in the planning and preconstruction process, any project that receives federal dollars must offer opportunities for private citizens and other interested parties to submit oral or written comments in support of, or opposition to, that project. Those comments must be submitted to the federal DOT, and it is not uncommon for projects that become controversial — as the 20/59 project has — to be delayed for years, and in some cases even abandoned altogether by the state transportation department in question.
ALDOT doesn’t want this to happen, and so it is going to great lengths to present the opposition to its plan as a bunch of malcontents, opposed to progress. The stacking of favorable comments at a public meeting is despicable enough by itself — but it’s made more so because it furthers ALDOT’s intention of subverting democratic processes, trivializing the concerns of people who actually live in the areas that will be most affected by the proposed changes, and tainting the information on public input that ultimately will be presented to the federal DOT as it considers final approval of the project.
Nothing to see here folks. A few complainers — but hey, look how many people love ALDOT.
It’s a sophomoric stunt worthy of a college fraternity — but it just might work. You don’t have to be subtle, or even smart, if you hold all of the cards. And, absent the emergence of strong local leadership and/or mass public action on this issue, ALDOT does. To them, democracy is a tedious affair to be shortcut and sidestepped at every turn, and citizens a nuisance to be dealt with as summarily as possible. Quite literally, they think that we are too stupid to care, and too distracted to do anything about it if we did.
Are they right?