BY ANDY MCWHORTER
The proposed Northern Beltline freeway in northern Jefferson County, also known as Corridor X-1 or Interstate 422, was first discussed in the 1980s after the construction of Interstate 459 in southern Jefferson County.
The construction of the Beltline would give Birmingham something that Atlanta, Nashville, Jacksonville, Fla., and numerous other cities have had for years—a freeway loop around the metropolitan area.
Right of way is being purchased for the $3.4 billion interstate, and the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) hopes to begin construction in the next several years, with completion expected by 2025.
But the project has proven to be highly controversial.
Beltline proponents claim that it will help relieve traffic congestion on freeways in downtown Birmingham and bring new economic development to northern and western Jefferson County. Opponents believe that the purported benefits of the project, if they come at all, may not outweigh the economic and environmental costs.
State Senator Scott Beason of Gardendale, a vocal Beltline supporter, is convinced the project will help relieve traffic congestion as promised. “It makes sure the through traffic can be sent to the periphery of the city, especially during rush hour, where there’s hundreds of cars if not thousands of car,” he tells Birmingham Weekly. “If they can be sent off on a loop that goes around the outside, that reduces traffic in downtown tremendously.
That’s the reason so many cities have loops.
It’s not like we’re just saying ‘this will work here.’ It’s been done all across the country.”
The greatest benefit of the Beltline, say project backers, will be its economic impact.
Among those making this argument are U.S. Representative Spencer Bachus and Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, as well as the Birmingham Business Alliance; the Coalition for Regional Transportation, a group formed by the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce in 2008 specifically to push the Beltline; and several large corporations, including U.S. Steel and Drummond Coal Company, which own a substantial portion of the land affected by the project and could profit from it substantially.
According to Beason, Jefferson, Blount and St. Clair counties are already growing, and this growth could be further stimulated by the Beltline. “[It] will open up even more growth, more development into those areas,” he says. “There’s a tremendous amount of vacant land and property to be developed in the northern side, and that’s what’s going to happen.”
Opponents of the project, including such environmental advocacy groups as the Cahaba River Society, are concerned about the possible environmental effects of the freeway, including potential damage to the Cahaba River watershed that supplies Birmingham with much of its drinking water.
Two such opponents are Pat Feemster and Jenna Jones of the grassroots organization Save Our Unique River, Community and Environment (SOURCE), a group formed by citizens primarily from the Clay and Center Point areas who oppose the project. According to Feemster, she got involved with SOURCE after writing letters to ALDOT voicing her concern that the proposed route for the Beltline went through the Cahaba watershed and some historical sites in Clay. “Experts have shown that the uppermost reaches of any river affect the rest of the river downstream,” she says. “When they are degraded, destroyed, it affects the quality and the quantity [of the water].”
Not surprisingly, Beason and Feemster disagree on the environmental impact of the Beltline. “I believe that we are technologically at a point where we can do as much as humanly possible and still have construction and protect that watershed,” Beason says. “There’s no question that it’s going to degrade the river because they’re going to put the streams into culverts,” Feemster says. “And it’s been explained to us that that speeds up the water, degrading the banks and washing sediment into the river.”
SOURCE and other groups argue that of the three proposed routes for the new freeway, the one chosen—referred to as Alternate A— is the longest and most expensive, would carry the least traffic (according to an ALDOT environmental impact study) and would cause the most environmental damage.
According to Feemster, there has to be a better way to solve traffic problems or achieve economic growth. “It’s just such an outmoded way of thinking to keep building roads and roads and roads,” she says. “More and more people are realizing that it’s a boondoggle.”
Jones believes that Birmingham should not build the Beltline just because other cities in the region adopted a similar strategy decades before. “Just get out of that old thinking of keeping up with other cities 30 years ago,” she says. “We can’t keep up with what they did 30 years ago because now they’re behind.”
According to Adam Snyder of the environmental group Conservation Alabama, fresh thinking is needed in order for the Birmingham area to move forward economically. “What we need to do is be strategic as a region and figure out where the new revenue is moving in,” he says. “Not how we’re going to shift money from another area of the state or another area of the region, but new money coming into this area to grow our economy, to protect our environment and to improve our public health. And obviously a beltline around the city is not a new idea. Will it produce new results? I don’t know. But I’d like to see it compared against some new ideas or different ideas on how to invest those public resources into our infrastructure.”