Okay, I’ve written or published about this topic before—actually numerous times.
But now since we are just days away, I may actually get your attention.
Nothing is more frustrating than being stuck in traffic.
The Sunday before I wrote this piece, my wife and I sat in our car on I-459 for about an hour as lanes were closed for construction.
The previous week ice on our roads caused wrecks everywhere and folks were marooned much of the morning.
Fortunately this doesn’t happen in Birmingham often.
But that may be about the change.
Within the next few days, I-20/59, the major interstate highway through downtown Birmingham, is scheduled to close for 14 months.
Bad for all of us
This won’t just affect people and businesses downtown, but also detour routes, like I-459, I-65 and 280 as traffic is rerouted.
As Tommy Neely, president of Ross Neely Systems, a Birmingham-based trucking company told al.com.
“I can’t say enough about how much I’m not looking forward to this…I think the general motoring traffic in Birmingham, they’re going to be stunned by how many trucks are here in town, not just from local companies like us, but from all over the country. Not only have the truck drivers got to be patient, these motorists in passenger vehicles are going to have to be extremely patient too because they’re going to be stuck behind all these trucks.”
This could have been avoided
There were other options to rebuilding the bridges downtown. There was the possibility of lowering I-20/59 underground or moving the interstate to the north.
When top communities leaders came out against the plan a couple of years ago, The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) said that it was too late to consider alternate plans.
But there were efforts by Operation New Birmingham (now REV Birmingham) to explore options with ALDOT a decade ago.
Chris Hatcher, a previous employee of Operation New Birmingham, told me he met numerous times with ALDOT to discuss other options, but he said he was ‘stonewalled.’
No other major metro in the U.S. would allow this to happen to them—not Atlanta, not Nashville—no one.
But as I wrote in 2013, Birmingham is powerless…
“We have no government entity that has the authority to fight for our community…We’re just too divided and disorganized. We have no one who has the authority, clout, or the incentive to make a stand. We have too many governments with no one in charge. We are powerless in Montgomery and powerless as we negotiate with ALDOT.”
Louisville– unified local voices accomplish tough projects
Louisville, Kentucky suffered many of the same problems as Birmingham before combining its county and city governments in 2003. But according to the well-researched Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham report, Louisville is now accomplishing tough projects.
“Prior to the merger, Louisville, as a community, had difficulty coming together to pursue big-ticket projects. Observers note that since the merger took effect, the dueling priorities of different governmental bodies have been replaced by “a quicker pace of decision-making, conflict resolution, and priority setting.”
“…One example can be found in a huge transportation project… It was long recognized that Louisville needed to make improvements to its transportation connections with Southern Indiana across the Ohio River from the city.”
“There was a perceived need for improvements to the downtown bridge carrying Interstate 65 across the river, and there was also a desire to create a separate crossing upstream. The tension between the two needs kept either from gaining full support. In the end, it was decided two new bridges would be built, using tolls to help pay for the $2.6 billion project. The Downtown Bridge has been completed and is open to traffic. The East End Bridge opened in December 2016.”
Our Birmingham region can learn
We may be stuck in traffic for the next 14 months.
But we can take this unproductive time to reflect on how we might find ways to collaborate.
We may not choose to combine our county and city as Louisville, but the efforts of our mayors to begin to work together on broader community initiatives is a good first step.
We certainly must demand a regional vision and plan.
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).
Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org