This week the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) released its evaluation of the Northern Beltline highway project, drawing opposition from the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog group with a mission for protecting the river. In this case, they fault ALDOT not only for giving short shrift to their environmental concerns, but for short-circuiting the procedures of the approval process.
The proposed project consists of a 52-mile limited access highway connecting up Trussville and Bessemer, but without creating a real loop around the city that connects to all the interstates. Since the environmental impact studies required under federal law were completed in 1997 and 1999, there have been significant changes in the way environmental regulations apply to the corridor. To give one example in the area of water quality, a number of streams along the route have been designated as impaired water bodies since the completion of the environmental studies. Though the “Summary of Preliminary Analysis Conducted for the Reevaluation of Project HPP-1602(530)(529)(502)(531)(532) Birmingham Northern Beltline” for the controversial project is over 98 pages in length, ALDOT has scheduled public hearings on the document in just one week and is requiring that all public comments be submitted in less than a month, by October 14.
Earlier this year, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), filed a lawsuit against ALDOT and the Federal Highway Administration under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) for failing to undertake a full analysis of the indirect and cumulative impacts of the Northern Beltline.
The Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, now the Birmingham Business Alliance, has made funding for the beltline its No. 1 one legislative priority since 2009. The Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, now the Birmingham Business Alliance, has made funding for the beltline its No. 1 one legislative priority since 2009.
SELC and the riverkeeper have consistently criticized the Beltline as following an outmoded transportation concept that harms both rural areas and urban centers by encouraging sprawl and is not an effective economic stimulus. They also claim the highway cutting through the headwater streams of the Black Warrior and Cahaba rivers threatens Birmingham’s drinking water supply with runoff pollution. Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke states, “The Northern Beltline will promote urban sprawl, pollute drinking water resources, and exacerbate air pollution in the greater Birmingham area. The region already has plenty of those problems to deal with, so why do some Beltline proponents want to spend $4.7 billion dollars adding to the problem? We need to put new money towards critical and necessary transportation infrastructure projects such as fixing our crumbling roads and highways, traffic congestion, and developing mass transit that will benefit everyone, not just the road builders, developers, and utilities.”
Staff Attorney Eva Dillard observes, “While we are still reading through the document, it does not change what is so wrong about the Northern Beltline. At $90 million a mile, this will be one of the most expensive highway projects ever built in the United States, in a time of real economic austerity for our region and our country. Where are cash-strapped local governments going to find money for necessary infrastructure like sewer, water, other utilities, school, public safety and road improvements? Why are we spending all this taxpayer money for a road that we know will not improve safety or relieve congestion? According to the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Beltline will absorb only 1-3% of the traffic from of I-20/59.”
Dillard continues, “If we taxpayers are going to make an investment of this magnitude, why has there been no comparison with other investments to make sure we are spending money wisely for the region? We know from the examples of other, comparable cities that beltlines are an outdated and discredited strategy for economic growth. Some cities have built beltlines that have completely failed (Greenville, SC and Fort Wayne, IN); some cities have abandoned beltline plans because of their acknowledged expense and limited benefits (Nashville, TN and Charleston, SC); and there are many cities which thrive economically today without beltlines (Chattanooga, TN and Orlando, FL). We can make sounder investments with greater returns, for the environment and the Birmingham region.”
According to the Cahaba River Society, the original environmental review was incomplete - it did not consider the cumulative impacts of the Beltline as a whole or the indirect environmental impacts of the growth the road is designed to create, and it gave short shrift to protecting our drinking water source and the Cahaba’s biodiversity and other values.
For more information about the Northern Beltline, including public hearing dates, maps, articles, economic studies, and Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s position statement, visit: http://blackwarriorriver.org/ northern-beltline.html Public Information Meetings for the project will be held on Tuesday, September 27, 2011 at the Gardendale Civic Center and on Thursday, September 29, 2011 at the Bessemer Civic Center. Both meetings will begin at 4:00 p.m. and end at 8:00 p.m