Birmingham to Widen Downtown Highway While Other Cities Tear ‘Em Down

Downtown freeways are unmitigated disasters for cities. They ruin the development potential of central city neighborhoods and create dead zones that divide downtown areas. That’s why Milwaukee, San Francisco, New Orleans, Niagara Falls, Oklahoma City, New Haven and Syracuse have either torn them down or are seriously considering it.

I-20/59 through downtown Birmingham is set to be widened. Image: ##http://blog.al.com/businessnews/2010/09/plans_to_put_i-2059_under_down.html##Al.com##

But Birmingham, Alabama, is on track to take just the opposite approach. Under the advice of the Alabama Department of Transportation, Birmingham plans to widen its elevated downtown highway, I-20/59. ALDOT wants to spend $65 million widening 18 miles of this highway to six lanes at all points, based on the projection that traffic will grow 4 percent annually for the foreseeable future. (The project’s total cost, including redecking the highway, is $300 million.) The idea is to speed traffic through downtown on “Alabama’s busiest highway.” ALDOT also wants to widen a local road and remove some on ramps.

John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, recently criticized ALDOT’s proposal in local news site The Weld, saying “it definitely will not do anything good for Birmingham.”

Public opposition to the project is growing, even while political opposition has been lacking. More than 500 people have joined a Facebook group called Rethink 50/29. According to Mark Kelly, publisher of The Weld, the freeway revolt is attracting a growing number of businesses:

…opposition to the ALDOT plan is growing, slowly but surely. It started with a few people in the Norwood neighborhood and some agitators in the Facebook group I Believe in Birmingham. It came to include the board of directors of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, at least 100 businesses in the Norwood Industrial District just south of I-20/59 and a group that began meeting on a weekly basis back in May and expanded into the Rethink 20/59 effort. Now, while not technically opposed at this stage, a small, informal group of influential business and civic leaders is quietly convening a meeting this week to “discuss…interests or concerns about [ALDOT’s] proposal or alternative plans.”

A alternative plan to sink the highway below street level was deemed too expensive. Image: ##http://blog.al.com/businessnews/2010/09/plans_to_put_i-2059_under_down.html## Al.com##

What the opposition is sorely lacking at this point, Kelly says, is the support of Mayor William Bell. Almost 1,000 people have signed a petition asking the mayor to oppose the project. Kelly says the mayor’s whole legacy could rest on how the situation plays out, as could Birmingham’s future as a competitive, 21st century city. But so far, the mayor has been silent.

Meanwhile, local Councilor Johnathan Austin has been the sole political voice in Birmingham to speak out against the project. He told The Weld recently:

ALDOT wants to take a bad idea and make it worse. They want to rebuild a bridge through downtown, when every major city in the country is looking for alternatives to building elevated highways. This is our city, and ALDOT should be working in unison with us, not trying to shove something down our throats because it suits them.

A $700 million alternative proposal to sink the highway was dismissed by state leaders as “too expensive.” Perhaps if transportation officials eliminated plans for the $4.7 billion Northern Beltline, a literal highway to nowhere, there would be more money to invest in the core of the city.

  • Tim Cook

    Angie Schmitt, thank you so much for giving this issue some exposure. I’m one of those I Believe In Birmingham agitators who is desperately working to give Birminghamians permission to imagine what a great city this could be before we lock ourselves in to another downtown disaster for generations to come. At this point we’ve just cleared the 1,000 mark on the online petition at http://Rethink2059.com, with more signatures on paper petitions.

  • Jeffco resident

    Given the recent history of this county, the question is NOT “why do they want to spend 4.7 billion on a belt line in preference to fixing the downtown interstate mess, one which doesn’t even connect up with the existing belt line,” but “which friend(s) of politicians stand to make a bundle from the project?”

  • douglasawillinger

    Streetsblog ought to support the underground option.

  • morriscivitas

    Dropping the highway below grade was a good idea from the 2003 city center plan update by UDA of Pittsburgh. Turned out that was more than twice the cost, but the grades between Red Mountain Expressway and I 65 interchanges could not meet interstate standards. Moving the highway would be a 20-year, very complicated option. The elevated has to be replaced within a few years. Mayor Bell has the sense to know this project has no truly feasible options. The replacement I 20/59, if you really look at it, frees up space below (5-feet higher, many fewer columns, monolithic concrete (no steel, no bump-bump-bump), exit or entrance ramps. It can be made into a decent pedestrian passage between downtown and BJCC.

  • Streetsblog would rather be peevish about vehicle traffic than try to actually improve cities.

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