Living with a bad decision for the next 100 years

I-59/20 Joe Songer
I-59/20 through downtown Birmingham: Joe Songer

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.

Racially motivated

When the interstate system was originally planned, many Southern cities built them through the center of their downtowns.  According to D MagazineThe 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.

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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).

Invite David to speak for free to your group about how  we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham.

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14 thoughts on “Living with a bad decision for the next 100 years”

  1. Thank You for making these points. Very well stated.
    This article reminds me of 5 famous sayings:

    “ A failure to plan is a plan to fail”

    ‘ You have to inspect what you expect”

    “ History always has a way of repeating itself”

    ‘ Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity”

    And for those who who worked so hard to right the ship before it launched: ‘ No good deed goes unpunished”

  2. I’d like to point out that the yearly budget of the transit agency (Max BJCTA) is about $17/million (although that was cut last November with the city of Birmingham cutting funding and the transit agency reducing its service by 37%).

    For the price of the 20/59 bridge (700 million!), we could have funded public transit at the current levels for over 40 years or greatly expanded our service!

    Tell me which would have benefited the citizens of Birmingham the most!

  3. I fully supported and continue to support the decision to replace this 59/20 bridge and rebuild it in the same location.

    When the Eisenhower Interstate System was conceived, it was routed to displace “outmoded business sections and undesirable slum areas wherever possible.” This is how a presentation at the 1939 World’s Fair described it.

    I like this mile long bridge. It is a beautiful reminder that we are living in the 21st Century and not the 19th or early 20th Century. That it divides the city is a myth. People can walk under it.

  4. “I like this mile long bridge. It is a beautiful reminder that we are living in the 21st Century and not the 19th or early 20th Century. That it divides the city is a myth. People can walk under it.”

    A suburbanite’s take. It’s not 1955 anymore. If anything, this mile long bridge shows just how shortsighted highway planners can be when it comes to essential infrastructure. This ought to be a cautionary tale about what happens when poor planning meets a desire for the cheapest and easiest fix possible.

    BTW, what you think about the Northern Beltline?

    1. I once supported the Northern Beltline. I thought it made sense to balance the growth in the southern part of the metro area by stimulating development to the north. Now I oppose it.

      We as a nation simply do not have the money to build new Interstate highways. We need to repair existing Interstates and invest in high speed rail to take pressure off the airlines. The airline industry has served us well for several decades but even before 9/11/01, air travel had gotten more miserable and crowded.

  5. Totally agree with rail.

    I’m still not real convinced this new bridge/road has much of a purpose. Better? Sure. But it’s still just a road / bridge. It’s not the Gateway Arch.

    Traffic was no worse than anywhere else and it worked just fine. That $700m could have been spent doing something substantial instead of making a prettier road.

    And yes, an interstate slap down the middle of your downtown is archaic and those are being torn down in other cities where they want the downtown to flourish. This roadway ensures a certain cap on development and a certain level of blight for the next 100 years.

    Better than it is now? Yes. But it should have been moved out of downtown or sunken to allow future expansion.

    Now you’re stuck with it. How much sayso did Mayor Woodfin have in this?

  6. The path of the Interstate would have been to the north along the Finley Avenue route but for it turning toward downtown near the Arkadelphia Road exit. Forward thinking when it was built during the 1960’s ?

  7. Everyone is selling the efforts being put into CityWalk short. Why don’t we all take a deep breath and allow this concept to be built. Having just a tiny part in it, I believe it will be a game changer.

  8. The underground alternative had (and has) many pluses. Some are obvious, some not as obvious but still very positive. Ah well, “wiser heads . . . “.

  9. And why do we lack a highly educated workforce? We gave an entity a monopoly on education, and most people don’t have the financial ability or time to avoid or overcome that deficiency.

    We need a separation of school and state.
    We need to provide education by providing vouchers and letting freedom of enterprise do its magic.

  10. I recall when interstate construction began to destroy many Birmingham neighborhoods. All were not black, nor low income. The Shadyside Community west of downtown Ensley, a working class white neighborhood was one. Parts of Ensley working class neighborhoods of Fairview, Pike Road and Oakland Terrace were destroyed by I20/59, which also upended parts of the white City of Fairfield. When I65 north was rammed through Birmingham, blue collar communities like Fountain Heights and Acipco were partially destroyed. Roebuck and East Lake, working class white communities in east Birmingham were partially destroyed by construction of I59. I65 also destroyed part of the Green Springs neighborhood. And certainly black communities like Smithfield, Titusville, Westfield, Southeast Woodlawn and more were certainly adversely affected. The City of Birmingham began a decline that has reversed itself recently. In 1960, the city reached the apex of it’s population, 326,000 people. By the 1970, census, with neighborhoods scraped off the face of the earth, the population dropped significantly, a trend that has lasted through the 2010 census. Hopefully, 2020 census, will reflect the resurgence of Birmingham and will produce an end to the decline.

  11. RE: Amazon
    “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.”

    #1 workforce: I call BS on this one. Bham’s downtown and suburbs are full of highly educated people. Most of the employees at Mercedes and Honda (I’ll wager) live in the Bham area. How many “highly educated” does Amazon need to find people to shove boxes on and off a belt-line.

    #2 inadequate public transportation: Amazon got us on this one. As long as we have up-to-date Interstates, no one is keen to switch to light urban rail. We have buses, but their reach to suburban satellite cities is inadequate.

    Bham has more marks against it due to its racist image (which CBS newsreels happily remind us every year) that Amazon choose not to admit to.

    As to I59/20 “dividing” Bham’s races, nah. For over 20 years I walked under the overpass to go to BJCC and parked (happily) under it to attend events and go to the Sheraton. The business area near the proposed new stadium is the best it has been since the 1980s. But I have grave concern over the destruction of existing neighborhoods to provide the extensive parking that the new stadium will require, possibly resulting in more nearby decay.

    Regarding the train overpasses dividing the city from Region’s Stadium, Railroad Park, etc., that’s on the city for doing nothing to stop urban decay, proliferation of the homeless, and not cleaning up the environs.

    I remember Morris Avenue when it was the hottest entertainment area this side of Underground Atlanta. One man got robbed and murdered there and Morris Avenue dried up in less than a year. It doesn’t take much to scare people (today) away from downtown. Five Points sits on a razor’s edge of making it or failing because of appearances and petty crime.

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