Not best way to spend $5 Billion on Birmingham

John Northrop
John Northrop

Today’s guest columnist is John Northrop.

Everett Dirksen, the Senate floor leader in the’50’s and 60’s was once quoted, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

We’re in the process of potentially investing $5 billion in our Birmingham region.

With that kind of money at stake we need to take a pause and consider a more transformative option.

As a member of the Transportation Citizens Committee to the Birmingham Regional Planning Commission (RPC), I recently voted against RPC’s proposed 2050 Regional Transportation Plan.

My beef?

The plan’s commitment to the northern beltway.

Preliminary work continues on the beltway, which boosters hope will be built over many years, mostly with designated funds from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). A recent Birmingham Business Journal “Power Poll” suggests that the beltway enjoys fairly strong support from area business leaders. Said the Journal:

  • Nearly 70% of respondents believe the Northern Beltline could have a similar impact on commercial and residential development as Interstate 459 did for the southern portions of the metro.
  •  The completion of Interstate 459 ushered in a significant era of development around its perimeter and helped fuel growth in suburbs like Hoover and Vestavia Hills, among others.
  •  Many believe that could happen in northern Jefferson County, with 34% of respondents saying they believe the potential for opening up new cities and suburbs to development is the biggest potential benefit of the Beltline.

I don’t question ARC’s rosy cost benefit projections for the project—although some observers say the anemic development to date along come-lately I-22 should give us pause. I also accept that getting big trucks off downtown freeways would help with traffic safety and congestion. Still, in this day and time, I object to the beltway for three main reasons:

First, regardless of economic cost-benefit for north Jefferson County and the wider Birmingham region, I think the beltway offers dubious core city good. Despite some potential “trickle down” benefits, the project chiefly invites suburban sprawl—something which many Journal respondents clearly endorse.

I myself fear the beltway may put core city resources and stability at further direct risk. Yes, southern development took off with I-459’s construction. So too the core city’s population decline.

There’s also the question of the project’s potential environmental impact. Completed, the beltway will traverse and further stress northern watersheds, whose well-being seems likely to prove critical for established populations downstream.

Finally, the beltway comes with a major opportunity cost: a reduced national capacity to slow and recover from climate disasters clearly growing in number and impact. There are and will be more critical needs for federal money, especially to fund climate mitigating strategies (like public transit) and to help restore stricken localities as heat, storms, drought, wildfires, and floods intensify.

In truth, I expect that regardless of metro or state priorities, national needs ultimately will override completion of the beltway. Yes, projected beltway funding is categorical and specifically targeted to this purpose. But circumstances and categories can change. Congress can redirect. And in this case I believe it’s just a matter of how soon and for what particular purposes.

I think new circumstances call for transformative investments, not just a truncated stretch of asphalt. Can we not embrace more judicious strategies, enlist our congressional delegation to get out in front for those, and make them our best bid for whatever funding may be in play in a more challenging future?

I’ve read that the beltway will cost more than $5 billion. That’s 5,000 million dollars! It would take far less to build a world class metro transit system! That system could link our entire region into an efficient, more unified economic engine for ourselves, the state, and nation.

Robust public transit would help build a more dependable work force, while also ensuring full access to and from school, health care, shopping, recreation, and worship—regardless of status or address. It would reduce traffic congestion and harmful emissions. It would help ratchet down the worst that climate seems on course to deliver.

I applaud the optimistic spirit of Comeback Town, which of course doesn’t mean reverting to anything exactly as it once was. Indeed, our challenge and I think obligation is to grow into something stronger and better crafted for changed realities.

Astute transportation choices will promote opportunity, productivity, and quality of life for everyone here—and, as a bonus, everyone else on our comeback planet.

John Northrop is a member of the Transit Citizens Advisory Board to the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority and coordinator of the Action Coalition for Transit (ACT), an all-volunteer organization urging first-ever state funding for public transit in Alabama.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Click here to sign up for our newsletter. (Opt out at any time)

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

(Visited 2,239 times, 1 visits today)

16 thoughts on “Not best way to spend $5 Billion on Birmingham”

  1. YOU ARE BRILLIANT! This us absolutely 100% correct. That beltway I have opposed since the beginning for exactly the same reasons. it is more ‘Falldown Birmingham,’ not Comeback. For year 2050, does anybody have any idea how it will be useful then? The whole idea is so far behind now, it is based on ancient thinking. It is a basic principle that high density, high intensity city core is the firm basic for the most efficient least costly public transit, saving people billions in the cost of purchase loan interest, fuel cost and maintenance not to mention insurance and traffic accidents. We must win this for Birmingham John! How can I help you beyond this?

    1. Thanks, Roy! Please visit and join us for updates and advocacy notices. In short, we need more business community folks on board with our legislators for state transit funding.

  2. Thanks, John, for your thoughts and insights. The advocacy of developers and speculators as proponents of the Northern Beltline often goes unquestioned. I would welcome a meaningful review and analysis of what would be good for the citizens of Jefferson County today and in the future. It would be nice to get ahead of what is likely to further impair our environment, instead of trying to pay to correct the problems afterward.

  3. John, your analysis is spot on. I’ve always been bothered by one other assumption about the Northern Beltline since it was first announced. Supporters have argued that it would bring development comparable to that along I-459. But southern Jefferson County was always primed for development based on prior migration there—thanks to the desirable school systems of Hoover, Vestavia Hills, and Mountain Brook. Commercial development naturally followed residential patterns. I’m not justifying that migration and sprawl, which resulted from white flight. But it’s a stretch to think it would automatically happen in North Jefferson. Where’s the comparable school systems?

  4. Mr. Northrop, thank you for this excellent laying-out of all the reasons not to construct that miserable, destructive, environmentally disastrous, backward-looking pipe dream of road-builders everywhere. I’ve always seen it as a boondoggle and a fraud– but I also understand that there are people genuinely thinking that it would be helpful to the northern environs of the County. The potential damage to the Cahaba alone should be enough to stop the project. I also know through experience with the Jefferson County Historical Commission that residents in the communities in the path of the proposed route are frantic and grief-stricken at the prospect of its destructiveness.
    People like you who can articulate these objections so well may be able to turn the tide. Can we get Katie Britt on our side?

  5. This column is right on the money.

    The Interstate Highway System has served us well for several decades. Eisenhower got the idea from Germany. He was impressed at how they were able to move traffic and fright around so efficiently with a similar system. Interstate highways have probably also sped up racial integration by eliminating segregated dilapidated neighborhoods and paying Black residents trapped there generous compensation for their land which they could use to buy houses in better newer White neighborhoods.

    But highways for cars need to be balanced by high speed rail. Florida has cities connected by fast rail, and Birmingham Mayor Woodfin wants it for Alabama..

    We also need far better transit for Birmingham. We don’t need it to the same extent as large, densely populated cities have it, but we need more of it than we have.

    Driving is not for everyone.

    1. Pat Dewees wrote:

      “Interstate highways have probably also sped up racial integration by eliminating segregated dilapidated neighborhoods and paying Black residents trapped there generous compensation for their land which they could use to buy houses in better newer White neighborhoods.”

      Are you serious or is that tongue in cheek? The “better, newer White neighborhoods” came into being because whites didn’t want to live with blacks. Some African Americans were eventually able to move into them, but not many. People whose properties were blighted by the building of the freeways didn’t get good compensation for loss of their properties. How could they if they were “dilapidated”? What they got didn’t go far to pay for new homes in the suburbs. Essentially the expansion of the freeway system prioritized suburban over urban living. White people and anyone who had enough money wanted to come into the city to make money and then leave after work, with no responsibility for the problems of the city.

      I appreciate that you support better public transit, but I can’t help but be disturbed by your understanding of how we got where we are now.

  6. One other thing I forgot to mention. Another problem with the Northern Beltway is that by the time it is finished, it will be obsolete because people will be getting around in flying cars.

  7. A good ol’ country-boy dear friend and successful real estate associate often urged prospects who were afraid to take the next step – to get out of the car for a closer inspection : ….” you never know how you look til you get your picture took!…” Many times, good things are not in plain view. TAKE A CLOSER LOOK! Recently, NAYSAYERS doomed ALDOTS proposed SKY-LANES above the choked HWY 280…years ago, no-one at City Hall thought much about meeting some start-up airline operators at the airport – they flew on to Atlanta and became DELTA! I am a longtime proponent of ONE GREAT CITY … I view improvements in our infrastructure …highways.. transit…as beneficial to all area residents. We need so much more – be careful what you turn down!

  8. The only plus I can see for building up northern suburbs is that it’d recenter Birmingham’s downtown as the center of the of the urban area. As it stands now, Homewood is. If people from across the area are congregating, then the place with the shortest average commute isn’t even Birmingham.

    In terms of a good transit system, I’d say go big or else it’ll be too inefficient to be appealing. Birmingham’s not that dense, but the terrain is a bit rough outside the Jones Valley. As the pipe dream, I’d lean towards an elevated rail for the southern suburbs, as otherwise, everything would have to be funneled to the same areas as the main roads since they have the smoothest elevation grades across all the ridges, and crowding all that ground space in places like the Red Mountain Cut limits the effectiveness (280 congestion makes an easier appeal for alternative transit in further burbs compared to more traffic-free corridors). Plus, the train supports could double as supports for pedestrian paths across hard crossings, like a path crossing 280 & 459 from the Colonnade to the Summit (Not really worthwhile by itself, but if there’s already a train going that way…). Outside of the terrain heavy locales, another line would be from the airport to the intermodal station, mostly for optics. Lines reaching Samford, BSC, Miles, UAB and possibly Montevallo would be ideal. Beyond that, lines (more likely trams than elevated) would more be about having a “sunk cost” to reassure residents in those areas and hint to developers more areas to focus on.

  9. It seems like the more we spend trying to make Birmingham a great place to live, we continue to fall back a step. I lived in Birmingham for 40 years…..worked there for 32 years. Best place to work in the 70’s and early eighties …….Hope things get better ….

  10. Agree totally. An environmental disaster and approved only because, as always, real estate developers and financial speculators, their lobbyists, and a corrupt and incompetent political system, doom sane planning. Bill North

  11. Agree the beltline is a waste of money. There’s no need for it. 459 is no where near “build out” to capacity so I don’t see Birmingham’s stagnated population growth demanding a northern beltline. It’s taken like 40 years to get 459 built out to where it is, and if you’ve visited many other cities’ beltlines, 459 appears almost rural by comparison.

    Will it bring a new exist/development or two in 10 years? Yeah sure maybe. But anything worth calling home about? NO. Birmingham spends and acts like it’s growing and it’s not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *