The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
— William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
“That phase of the project is over.”
John Cooper is a no-nonsense kind of guy. If the past two-and-a-half years have impressed upon me nothing else about the director of the Alabama Department of Transportation, it is that he believes deeply in the utility and power of the declarative sentence.
This particular declaration of Cooper’s came on Wednesday, July 29, at the Harbert Center in downtown Birmingham. The occasion was a news conference where Cooper announced that construction on the first phase of ALDOT’s planned rebuilding of Interstate 20/59 through downtown is set to begin “any day now,” and to proceed apace through two additional phases between any day now and the scheduled completion of the project by (roughly speaking) 2020.
In brief, the project is scheduled to proceed as follows: Phase I will raise and widen the bridges on I 20/59 and I-65, approaching the “Malfunction Junction” interchange, both to meet revised federal standards for new highway construction and in anticipation of Phase II, which will reconfigure the interchange itself. Phase III is the actual rebuild of the downtown portion of 20/59, including reconfiguration of the interchange with Red Mountain Expressway.
After Cooper’s announcement and a rough overview of the ALDOT plan that he conducted with DeJarvis Leonard, the engineer who will manage the 20/59 rebuild out of the department’s regional office here, I asked the director what the announcement means to the continued — and, let us point out, growing — opposition to the plan and calls for an alternative that would remove the interstate from downtown altogether. I received the expected no-nonsense reply.
“The planning for this project predates my time in office,” Cooper said. “In my tenure, we’ve been in the active planning stage for the last three years.
“It’s fair to say that any project of this magnitude generates opposition, and addressing that has been part of the planning phase. Now, we’re focused on getting the project done. That phase of the project is over.”
I have to say in all honesty that this quality of Cooper’s is one for which I have gained an increasing, if grudging, appreciation over the past two-and-a-half years, as the 20/59 saga has unfolded. In his adherence to the manner and mien of a man intent upon getting done the task to which he was hired, no matter what you or I or anyone else below his pay grade has to say about it, he is remarkably steadfast. On any number of occasions, he has prefaced his reply to some question of mine with the same pronouncement: “My job is building roads.”
In public settings, and in his intercourse with the news media in general, Cooper says what he came to say, and he answers all questions with a patience that, while it can border on the condescending, is nonetheless admirable in a world where most public servants now take pains to avoid the necessity of thinking on their feet. He actually seems to relish the engagement — or at least to appear that he does, which might be an even greater tribute to him than the compliment I’m attempting to pay.
Not that compliments from me are very likely to matter to Cooper one way or the other. First of all, I’m guessing that it goes without saying that my pay grade falls somewhere below that of the ALDOT director. More importantly, I have on numerous occasions written very pointed things about ALDOT generally, and about the specifics of a plan for 20/59 that does not work in the economic and human interests of Birmingham, either immediately or over the long term.
I stand by each and every word of it, of course, which only underscores the point I am working toward. I have proffered this impressionistic little portrait of John Cooper by way of acknowledging a small epiphany that I experienced while sitting in the ALDOT press conference last week, which is that Cooper is just what he claims: A man who builds roads.
Now one can argue that in a state well governed, Cooper’s charge from above — by which I mean the governor’s office, not the Good Lord — would be much broader, born of a much larger vision of what the term “transportation” means in the 21st century. I, for one, certainly suggest that the director of ALDOT — which, by the way, used to be known by what still seems a more appropriate name, the Alabama Highway Department — should be encouraged and empowered to pursue a vision that seeks to develop a comprehensive transportation strategy that incorporates all modes of transport, including bicycles and walking, into a plan that meets the needs of Alabama’s citizens.
But this is not the job that Cooper’s boss hired him to do. His job is building roads. Some ancient Zen master once admonished a pupil against being angry at a dog for barking, for to do so is to deny the dog’s true nature — his “dogness,” if you will. I recalled this during my little epiphany, and found in it a new understanding of the 20/59 issue.
It is not John Cooper’s job to pay more than perfunctory attention to what the public wants, nor to devote more than compulsory time and resources to addressing such quotidian obstacles to roadbuilding efficiency. It is not his job to rectify the economic injustice and social disruption that have resulted from the original routing of 20/59, nor to ponder over or base decisions on the presumptive benefits to the city if the interstate were rerouted now.
It is not John Cooper’s job to care about the citizens of Birmingham.
That, my friends, is the job of Birmingham’s leaders. And that is a job at which our leaders have failed miserably — an unbroken legacy of limited vision and failed leadership that stretches back at least to 2004, and through three mayoral administrations (Bell, Langford, Kincaid). That’s when the newly completed City Center Master Plan first proposed the idea of moving — or burying in a tunnel — I-20/59. But nobody in either the public or private sector took that ball and attempted to run with it.
What if someone had? I asked that question last week, too — not of Cooper, but of someone with extensive working knowledge of both government and public infrastructure issues. If at any point between 2004 and, say, two-and-a-half years ago, had the city of Birmingham taken the initiative to push for an alternative to the plan with which we now, presumably, are stuck, could a different outcome have been reached? Could an alternative have been feasible?
The reply was Cooperesque in its head-on conveyance of the point: “Absolutely.”
Ah, but if the fault for I-20/59 — the opportunities lost, the blight unalleviated, the physical and social division perpetuated by its continued invasive presence in our urban landscape — lies with our leaders, then it lies also with us. Citizens, neighborhood groups, community organizations, small and medium-sized businesses, media outlets — we all have the responsibility of holding our local government accountable to the needs of the community.
To the extent that this does not happen — when leadership is ineffective, or when it fails to emerge at all — then perhaps rather than excoriate our leaders, we should question the extent to which we are fulfilling our own responsibilities. If we want better leaders, we can have them. If we don’t care, then, as the apparent fate of I-20/59 demonstrates, neither will they. We have what we have because we do not demand better.
In the meantime, all is not lost. From all indications, a lawsuit seeking to stop, or at least delay, the project on environmental grounds will be filed soon, funded by a group of concerned citizens. Cooper’s declarations to the contrary, the question of whether the ship has sailed on prospects of an immediate alternative to the plan that ALDOT now is moving full speed ahead to implement remains, to some extent, open.
Regardless, we should not be perturbed by the dog’s barking, but rather by our own shortcomings. John Cooper and ALDOT are just doing their job. We in Birmingham have not done ours.