I-59/20 through downtown Birmingham closed on January 21, 2019.
One year later, the bridges are open to traffic.
Everyone’s high fiving and we’re back to normal.
Experts predict the new bridges will stand for another one hundred years–so no adult today will be alive to make the next decision.
I want to make this perfectly clear: This piece is not about redoing I-59/20–this project is done.
Though no one can tell me that it was a good idea to run a massive expressway through what could be the most valuable real estate in Birmingham.
This piece is about taking control of Birmingham’s future.
When the interstate system was originally planned, many Southern cities built them through the center of their downtowns. According to D Magazine, The Racist Legacy of America’s Inner-City Highways, engineers saw these roads as “a large-scale implementation of a policy of displacement, demolition, and economic disenfranchisement. Poor, often racially segregated neighborhoods were leveled to make way for the new roads.”
Birmingham was no exception.
Downtown Birmingham chopped into thirds
This had a particularly detrimental effect on our downtown–dividing it into three parts. To the north we have I-59/20 separating our Jefferson County Civic Center Complex, Protective Stadium, Top Golf, etc., and to the south we have the railroad bridges and underpasses segregating UAB, Railroad Park, Regions Field, etc. Pedestrians are uncomfortable walking under the interstate to the north or the underpasses to the south.
Thoughtful cities are tearing down expressways through city centers
With advanced planning the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) might have had two other options. They could have possibly moved I-59/20 north of Birmingham and away from downtown or built it underground. ALDOT never considered any alternative other than to build it in place.
Many thoughtful cities in the U.S. and around the world are tearing down expressways that divide their cities.
According to Gizmo Design, “It seems counterintuitive, right? Rip out eight lanes of freeway through the middle of your metropolis and you’ll be rewarded with not only less traffic, but safer, more efficient cities? But it’s true, and it’s happening”… in places like San Francisco, Portland, Milwaukee, and Seattle.
Fund other critical needs
We spent $700 million for about one mile of bridges, but we have no money for other critical needs.
A couple of years ago Amazon announced it was seeking a second headquarters. Birmingham submitted a bid.
At least two requirements of the request for proposal (RFP) immediately disqualified Birmingham—the lack of a highly educated workforce and woefully inadequate public transportation.
Maybe if we invested in both, we could actually have a chance to attract the headquarters of a large company like Amazon?
Take responsibility for our future
Aren’t we getting tired of allowing others to make decisions for us?
It was no secret that one day the bridges would need to be replaced.
It would be unfair to blame ALDOT. Our region had no transportation plan. A vacuum was created and ALDOT had no choice, but to respond.
Who knows if it would have been practical to move I-59/20 to the north or build it underground? But our region should have seized the opportunity to evaluate options rather than to allow a monolithic state agency to make that decision for us.
We have big opportunities ahead. We need to stand up as a region and develop a strategic plan to insure a positive future.
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 for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.