First notch in the beltline


Published in the Feb. 4, 2016 issue of Weld for Birmingham

BIRMINGHAM — A recent U.S. District Court ruling paved the way for clearance on the first segment of what could be the biggest highway investment in Alabama history.

Environmental group Black Warrior Riverkeeper, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, alleged agencies involved with the Northern Birmingham Beltline project — a proposed 52-mile highway that would stretch from I-59 in northeast Jefferson County to the I-459 interchange near Bessemer — failed to conduct an environmental impact review of the project in its entirety.

U.S. District Court Judge Keith Watkins dismissed the group’s challenge, citing that the Alabama Department of Transportation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had no responsibility to perform such a large-scale analysis.

That decision has now enabled stakeholders to progress with the first section of the beltline, which begins in rural Pinson. 

Moving the needle

Decreased speed limit signage and orange cones lining Highway 75 near Palmerdale United Methodist Church in Pinson are clear indicators of approaching construction. A large green sign on the side of the highway, however, specifically notifies drivers that they’re about to drive by the tip of a massive highway iceberg.

The Birmingham Northern Beltline, a proposed six-lane corridor that comes with an approximate $5.4 billion price tag, has been on the drawing table for decades.

Proponents of the beltline, which has an estimated completion date of 2054, claim the highway will help decongest traffic along the I-20/59 corridor and encourage economic growth in the rural areas it connects, as well as stimulate jobs throughout the region.

Opponents, however, cite the roadway has the potential to adversely impact previously untouched waterways and disrupt ecosystems.

After hearing the recent court ruling that gave ALDOT the okay to move forward with the 1.34-mile segment in Pinson, Gil Rogers, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he was deeply disappointed.

“The [beltline] as a whole is going to cause a lot of impacts to waterways, wetlands — you’ll see impacts to some forest resources and impacts to air quality,” Rogers said. “There are a lot of win-win opportunities being overlooked in pushing this really bloated, wasteful project.”

In addition to environmental concerns, Rogers said the beltline could drain a significant amount of Birmingham’s federal transportation funding, which could be used to repair existing roads throughout the city.

“Why is so much money going to this boondoggle when it could be going to other needed improvements around Birmingham?” Rogers asked. “There’s just only so much taxpayer money to go around.”

And while Rogers and others have spoken out about the beltline’s hefty price and the dramatic impact it could have on Alabama’s landscape, ALDOT environmental program engineer Barry Fagan said stakeholders intend on the project coming to fruition — even if most won’t see that happen within their lifetime.

Just the beginning

While sitting in an ALDOT trailer just off Highway 75, Fagan admits the road ahead for the beltline is long — figuratively and literally — and there are some large question marks that remain, like where to find the necessary funds to complete the roadway.

Fagan said, however, that ALDOT has remained diligent in staying current with environmental regulations pertaining to the 1.34-mile highway construction in Pinson, which will cost $46 million and is projected to be completed this fall.

“If we don’t address those environmental responsibilities, we won’t get to fulfill our mission of providing a transportation system,” Fagan said. “Those responsibilities are permits and authorizations and clearances —but they’re also social expectations.”

The closest waterway to this initial phase of construction is Self Creek.

Fagan said ALDOT has created several storm-water filtering systems in an effort to make sure the creek’s quality is preserved. ALDOT has also been notified of any endangered species in the area, he said.

“If we don’t take care of the environment, we can’t build roads,” Fagan said.

As a way to keep the Pinson community up to speed on beltline construction, ALDOT formed a community outreach group, which consists of nine volunteer residents who serve as liaisons between ALDOT and the community.

David Cooper, who was nominated to the outreach group, said he has been impressed with ALDOT’s efforts to keep the community current on construction.

“ALDOT has done an incredible job at not going in and clear cutting and causing erosion, either,” Cooper said.

Other Pinson residents, however, aren’t thrilled about their quiet community becoming ground zero for the massive roadway.

Jack Johnson, who lives less than a mile away from Highway 75 on Brookwood Road, said by the time the first segment of the beltline is completed, he will have lost approximately a half-acre from his property.

“Basically, the way this thing is working right now, is if you were a baseball player, you could hit a baseball from my house to where the highway will be,” said Johnson, who has lived on the secluded property since 1992.

Johnson said proponents of the beltline argue the project will serve as an economic catalyst in rural areas like Pinson, and provide a more direct route into Birmingham.

Johnson said none of those arguments come across as benefits to the majority of Pinson residents, though.

“People moved out here for a reason,” Johnson said. “To get away from crime, to get away from everything.”

Linda O’Toole, who works just a stone’s throw away from beltline construction at Palmerdale United Methodist Church, expressed a similar opinion.

“I’m sure down the road it’s going to be great, but I think it’s kind of been a mess,” she said.

The Road Ahead

Despite disappointment in the court’s ruling allowing the first segment of beltline construction to start, beltline opponents are confident more speed bumps are in store for the project.

“The future viability of the road is still very much in question,” Rogers said. “Really, at this point, I don’t think it’s a done deal at all.

“I think it’s so expensive that even the people who want the project badly are going to have a hard time figuring out how to pay for it, and certainly figuring out how to do all the other things Birmingham’s transportation system needs.”

Just for the first phase of the beltline in Pinson, Fagan said, three bridges are required in order to protect Self Creek.

Funding for those bridges, Fagan said, has yet to be found. “It’ll be a little while before we can build the bridges on this project because the funding just isn’t there right now,” he said.

Currently, the beltline’s main funding stream flows from the Appalachian Development Highway System — an initiative spearheaded by the Appalachian Regional Commission to establish a roadway system to underserved areas in the Appalachian region.

According to the Better Beltline website, because Congress made the Appalachian Development Highway System a priority, any projects on the beltline that are authorized by Sept. 30, 2021 are eligible for 100 percent federal funding with no requirement for matching funds from the state.

Given all the remaining hoops ALDOT must go through to meet environmental regulations, however, Rogers said he wouldn’t be surprised if the beltline timeline is extended.

“They’re going to need future permits and future studies to look at extending the beltline,” Rogers said. “And a lot of that is in question right now just because of the general budget that ALDOT has and the relatively small amount of federal money that’s available overall.”

Looking at the beltline’s future, however, Fagan said his outlook remains positive.

He’s confident the day will come when downtown traffic is alleviated, and economic growth is on the horizon — all thanks to the beltline.

“The truth is, especially when you get this much attention on a project, if you don’t do it right to start with it can go horribly wrong, and we have every intent in finishing this 52 miles,” Fagan said. “So we’re going to start off right.”