It is really a testament to how dominant the highway industrial complex has become that we even have to talk about Birmingham’s Northern Beltline, a $4.7 billion outerbelt first proposed in the 1960s. But with backing from big companies that would reap windfall real estate profits from the highway — and with a U.S. Senator working to secure federal funding — this boondoggle might actually get built.
This 1960s-era outerbelt proposal Birmingham is pursuing would cost $4.7 billion. Image: Birmingham News
The six-lane, 52-mile highway would be fantastically expensive for any state. Even on a per mile basis — $90 million — it is extravagant, making it one of the country’s most expensive highway projects, and by far the priciest one in state history.
To make matters worse, by any measurable outcome the project wouldn’t be all that useful. Regional transportation officials have estimated that this project would reduce congestion on existing freeways by a mere 1 to 3 percent. That’s a big part of the reason, when those planners ranked the 50 most important transportation projects for the Birmingham area, the Northern Beltline was ranked a lowly 36th. (All the remaining 49 projects, by the way, could be completed for $1 billion less than the total cost of the Northern Beltline.)
Even as a job creator — its ostensible purpose — the Northern Beltline underwhelms. A study commissioned by the Coalition for Regional Transportation, a pro-highway non-profit, estimated the project would produce 70,000 jobs and $7 billion in investment. But Chattanooga’s Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies [PDF] says that study — completed by the Center for Business and Economic Research — was seriously flawed.
“The CBER data confuse permanent jobs with jobs available in any one year and rely on outdated Federal Highway Administration data,” said Ochs Center authors Ken Chilton and Peter B. Meyer.
Chilton and Meyer, on the other hand, estimate the project could produce as few as 2,800 jobs during any of the project years. That equals one job per $456,000 invested.
Plus, Chilton and Meyer say the CBER study examined only benefits of the Beltline and ignored its costs, and that it examined those benefits only against the “build nothing” alternative.
Ochs, meanwhile, estimates the project would attract only 372 businesses and 6,527 residents. Even that paltry influx could occur only after significant additional cost to taxpayers, because sewers need to be built in the undeveloped area the highway would serve.
That led Chilton and Meyer to conclude: “This project would be a poor investment of limited taxpayer dollars given its enormous cost and over-inflated economic benefits.”