Birmingham real winner in I-20/59 decision

Will French
Will French

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blog was written by Will French as response to Heavy handed tactics lead to regrettable I-20/59 decision.

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I am relieved by Judge Ott’s recent ruling in favor of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) regarding the rebuilding of I-20/59. I am excited that the ruling will allow the project to go forward, and I think the people of Birmingham are the real winners here. Not losers.

Is it a perfect project? Of course not. Will it solve all problems with the current road? No. Is it the ultimate solution? Again, no. But will it be a substantial improvement over what we have now? Absolutely, emphatically, YES! Here’s what will be better:

First, safety. The existing structure doesn’t meet modern design standards for merging distances, and requires dangerous traffic weaving to get to and from the various ramps. Have you ever come south along I-65 and tried to merge onto 20/59 and exit at 17th Street? I defy anyone to tell me that’s not dangerous.

Or what about the merge from the Red Mountain Expressway going towards 31st Street? According to the 2009 Parsons Brinckerhoff study, there is a wreck there more than once a week, on average. Both of those problems, and many other similar ones, will be fixed with the new design.

Second, traffic capacity. The existing road carries twice as much traffic as it was designed for. The new road will be able to carry a lot more, both because it will be wider and because it will not have the merging/weaving bottlenecks of today. It will have better shoulders, so when there is a wreck other traffic won’t be slowed down as much.

The highway will still be busy, and will probably still back up at rush hour, but not as badly as today. This is the busiest interstate segment in the State of Alabama. It needs more traffic capacity.

A final issue is aesthetics. I don’t want to oversell this one; it’s still going to be a big highway bridge up in the air. The new bridge should look better, and be a little quieter underneath. But it won’t be as nice as it would be to have the whole thing underground with a park on top.

That leads me to consideration of the two most-talked-about alternatives, and the problems with both that their proponents rarely discuss. Problems for which I have never heard even the beginning of an idea about how to solve. The two problems are, as is so often the case, time and money.

The two alternatives are 1) put the whole thing below grade along the current location, or 2) move the highway out of downtown altogether and run it somewhere around Finley Boulevard. I actually like both ideas. Both would improve the downtown pedestrian experience enormously. Both would present some land redevelopment opportunities downtown, and allow for parks or other amenities. Both would also connect the Civic Center area, new Uptown developments, and nearby northern neighborhoods more integrally with the rest of downtown.

But both would take a long time to build, and both would cost an enormous amount of money. How much of each? The short answer is that nobody knows. Engineering design has not begun for either.

For the Finley alternative, we would be building several miles of urban interstate on a brand new alignment. That is virtually never done any more in the US because of all the problems it entails: disruption and relocation of existing people and businesses; environmental justice issues; other environmental issues; cost; etc. If we could actually get it done, which I doubt, I think it’s fair to say that it would take decades and cost billions.

The below-grade option in the existing corridor is more feasible, but it’s still too expensive and too time-consuming. It has been reported that the below-grade project could cost $700 million. If that number came from the 2009 Parsons Brinckerhoff study, it is already 7 years old. Construction can’t begin until design work is complete. Design would take at least a couple of years if anyone were actually working on it, which they are not.

A more realistic construction number, for some undetermined date in the future, is probably in the $1.5 to $2 billion range. The existing bridge replacement project will cost around $400 million. If the below grade option is what we want, where is all that extra money going to come from?

And how much longer would it take? The current ALDOT project will be finished in 2 or 3 years. The existing bridge decks are falling apart, traffic counts aren’t getting any lower, and safety issues aren’t getting any better. Do we really want to live with the existing road while we go through years more of discussion and design? I know I don’t.

What I suggest instead is that we support ALDOT’s going ahead with their existing project. We need it now, in the short term, and they are ready to do it. In fact, they ARE doing it, and there’s not much chance that they will change their minds. Judge Ott’s November ruling dismissed the lawsuit aiming to stop the project. Anyone who doesn’t like the ALDOT plan probably needs to accept that the battle is over.

But instead of just accepting the current project as our ultimate destiny, let’s keep working on what we want, in anticipation of the next time the bridges need major rebuilding. The day will come, eventually, when the new bridges need an overhaul or replacement of their own. Let’s be ready for that day with a real plan of what we want.

It may seem like the far distant future, but big public works projects take decades from conception to reality. Controversial projects can take years just to reach consensus around the best solution. Funding can also take years to line up. It is not too soon to begin planning and advocating for something that may take 30 or 40 years to realize.

The 2004 Urban Design Associates plan was a good start. The 2009 Parsons Brinckerhoff study was a good next step. And the Move I‑20/59 organization, and others, have done a good job of raising public awareness of the issues and the opportunities. I sincerely hope that the opponents of the current project will keep working, so that next time around we can do something better.

In fact, I will gladly join any efforts working towards that goal. To be successful, it will take many years of continuous work, discussion, lobbying, and advocacy. Today’s ALDOT project is good, in my opinion, but we can and should expect even better the next time around.

Too often in Birmingham, when there is a proposal for something new, we complain that it’s not going to be good enough, or that it might not work, or it might make things worse, or we like things the way they already are. If we fall into the trap of thinking like that, we run the risk of never accomplishing anything.

Projects and ideas don’t have to be perfect in order to be useful. Let’s not agonize over lost opportunities, and let’s not despair just because a current project doesn’t take us all the way to the final goal.

ALDOT’s 20/59 project is a good one. It will bring real improvements for traffic flow and safety, and modest improvements in appearance. It will bring those benefits soon, at a cost that the State can afford. It does not keep us from working toward a bolder, more ambitious project in the future. Let=s support both ALDOT’s current project and future efforts to do something even better.

Will French is Chairman, President, and CEO of Dunn Investment Company.  He is a lifelong resident of the Birmingham area.

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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8 thoughts on “Birmingham real winner in I-20/59 decision”

  1. “Next time around” will be in 50+ years. Is Mr. French that young of a man? Can we get a proponent of the current plan who doesn’t stand to make millions from ALDOT contracts?

    1. I think Will gets it right. Let’s move forward and get involved in some other more timely and feasible projects for our city. At least I may live to drive on the newly-improved interstate … maybe?

      1. I agree as well. Imagine spending $100 million on projects for art, parks and innovative solutions for things UNDER the interstate. It would be world renowned! The key is actually doing this and making it happen~

  2. Will ALDOT actually create an interstate project through downtown that also has style? The design needs to be attractive to invite people and vendors to use the under bridge space ALDOT proposes will be created as part of the new construction.

    1. I think the answer is most likely no, ALDOT won’t create some kind of stylish, artistic space under the bridge. But the City or some other organization certainly can. I am sure ALDOT will have no problem with someone doing that, as long as they know what’s going on.

      I think this is actually an important part of the project, but it doesn’t need to be ALDOT led. Maybe REV Birmingham could help here – their lights under the railroad bridges are nice, and were relatively cheap. Something like that on a bigger scale, maybe including some sound-proofing components, could really improve the aesthetics of the highway.

  3. “But instead of just accepting the current project as our ultimate destiny, let’s keep working on what we want, in anticipation of the next time the bridges need major rebuilding. The day will come, eventually, when the new bridges need an overhaul or replacement of their own. Let’s be ready for that day with a real plan of what we want.”

    The problem is that the city did that in the 2004 and 2009 studies you reference. The next opportunity won’t come for another generation. I appreciate that you’re interested in working toward that day, but unless you’re 20 years old, chances are slim that you’ll have any impact on those future discussions.

    1. It takes a lot more than just a couple of studies. That was the problem with the below-grade idea: nobody really worked on making it happen. There was one conceptual idea (2004) and one high-level feasibility study (2009). By the time the Move I-20/59 people started working on it, it was too late. ALDOT, who really had been working on what to do, had already figured out their plan.

      If we want something different to happen next time, we need to work on it starting now, and keep working on it for years. I know it’s probably a long time in the future. I think it’s worthwhile to try to make long-term improvements to the community whether or not I live to see them finished.

  4. Dear Mr French,

    I am so proud of your professional analysis of this project!
    I know your folks and I can read why they are justly proud of you!
    Hopefully we will have the opportunity to meet someday but keep up the excellent work in building Birmingham. When confronted with obvious and deserved criticisms of our community, I cite that we have great DNA in our people.
    You are a great example of that……
    God Speed

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