By Bethany Adams, For the Tribune
If you mention the Birmingham Northern Beltline, someone will be happy to share their opinion on the colossal highway project. Groups such as the Coalition for Regional Transportation have formed to support the project alongside organizations like the Birmingham Water Works Board and the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport Authority. Meanwhile, environmental groups like the Black Warrior Riverkeeper are fighting to have it shut down, and others are calling it an economic “boondoggle”.
As the project is expected to take decades to complete, the debating shows no signs of stopping. But with all of the arguments for and against the project, many community members are left with simple questions: What is the Birmingham Northern Beltline, exactly? And how will it affect local communities?
Also referred to as Corridor X-1 or Interstate 422, the Birmingham Northern Beltline is a proposed 52.5-mile, six-lane highway that, when completed, will stretch across northern Jefferson County. It is part of a larger highway project called the Appalachian Development Highway System, a federally-funded project which includes 32 highway corridors throughout 13 states.
According to betterbeltline.org, the bypass route will “connect I-59 in northeast Jefferson County to the I-459 interchange with I-20/59 near Bessemer.” In 2014, construction began on the first portion of the highway, which is located between Alabama Highways 75 and 79 near Pinson.
With an estimated cost of $5.4 billion (not accounting for power lines, sewer services and other needs), the road is being called a misuse of funds. According to the Southern Environmental Law Center’s website, the Beltline’s price tag is more than enough to “widen and improve the area’s existing interstates, fix Malfunction Junction … and implement ongoing maintenance and improvements for at least 50 other major highways and connections around the area.”
Supporters, however, claim that it is worth the cost. In 2010, an independent study by the University of Alabama commissioned by the CRT stated that the Beltline would have a $7 billion impact on the state economy during construction and $2 billion annually after completion. The study also claimed that the project would create somewhere around 70,000 jobs during construction and nearly 21,000 each year after completion.
Recently, represented by the SELC, the Black Warrior Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit challenging the permit granted to ALDOT by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to the group’s website, the beltline “will cross and permanently alter Black Warrior and Cahaba river streams and wetlands in 125 places”, potentially impacting two major sources of drinking water.
Although U.S. District Court Judge Keith Watkins ruled in favor of ALDOT, the environmental groups plan to continue fighting the project. In a press release, Nelson Brooke of Black Warrior Riverkeeper stated, “In choosing the longest and most environmentally destructive of all seven routes considered, ALDOT failed to thoroughly account for the Northern Beltline’s impacts to water resources throughout Jefferson County, including drinking water sources, neglecting its duty to serve the public interest.”
Renee Carter, Executive Director of the Birmingham Coalition for Regional Transportation, defended the ruling in an article for the Alabama Road Builder, stating that the USACE “determined the project both met, and in some cases exceeded, all requirements of the federal Clean Water Act.” In addition, the University of Alabama’s report stated that the Beltline will not only improve air quality by reducing traffic congestion, but that it will create safer road conditions for drivers.
In cities like Clay, community members such as Brendon Pinola have expressed concerns about the effect the Beltline could have on everyday life. “My family and I live in a neighborhood that is projected to be partially eliminated when the beltway comes through, said Pinola. “[Although] it seems unlikely that our house would actually be bought and torn down to make room, we’re facing the possibility of having a major roadway five houses down from where we live instead of a peaceful residential and wooded area.”
For government officials like Mayor Webster of Clay, the new road will bring in important businesses and shorten commute times. “If we can attract new industries and employ people here, then we’ll see new restaurants and hotels emerge,” he said in an article by the CRT. “If we have more places to eat and lodge, then we’ll be able to bring in baseball tournaments and develop new assets like a BMX course – something that we’ve been considering for a while.”
But according to Clay City Manager Ronnie Dixon, who is a part of the community outreach group that regularly meets with ALDOT, none of this may matter for quite some time. “In the national transportation bill that the president put into effect last year, they wiped out all of the Appalachian funding,” said Dixon. “The next portion, which will be [adding] the bridges, is not even slated to be put out for bid until 2019.”
Following that phase, the road would require paving before it would be drivable—something that Dixon said could take years. And with no funding, that isn’t going to happen for a while. “With the Appalachian funds being wiped out, there’s no identified funding source anymore,” Dixon sad. “So there’s nothing that’s gonna happen in Clay for years and years. The money’s just not there.”
More information about the Beltline can be found at northernbeltline.org (where you can read the full 2010 report) and betterbeltline.org. The Black Warrior River Project and the Southern Environmental Law Center also offer information on their websites, blackwarriorriver.org and southernenvironment.org.