Birmingham, Alabama: Northern Beltline

The Northern Beltline is the wrong investment for Birmingham—draining limited transportation funding from other much-needed projects statewide, and at a high cost to our waterways.


Photo © Nelson Brooke

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Map of Alabama’s 50 needed transportation projects highlights imbalanced approach to infrastructure More »

A map released today of Alabama’s 50 most pressing road improvements highlights the critical need for accountability and transparency in the decision-making process around statewide transportation investments. The report’s estimated cost for all 50 of these projects would be half a billion dollars less than the proposed Northern Beltline around Birmingham, which is recklessly proceeding forward despite a long list of other needed projects languishing on the books.

Titled “The Top 50 Highway Projects to Support Economic Growth and Quality of Life in Alabama,” the report by the national nonprofit transportation research group The Road Information Program (TRIP) ranks the 50 statewide highway projects using criteria aimed at supporting Alabama’s economic growth and quality of life. According to the report, the combined, estimated cost for all 50 of these projects would be $4.6 billion; the $5.3 billion Northern Beltline project is notably absent from the list.

While SELC and partner Black Warrior Riverkeeper neither endorse nor oppose the projects included in the report, the list is an eye-opening illustration of how the Northern Beltline bleeds funding from critical transportation needs. These needs will continue to go unmet as long as the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) gives funding priority to the Northern Beltline and other politically motivated projects.

Although ALDOT has the flexibility to use money allocated to the Northern Beltline on other projects, the agency continues to forge ahead with the most expensive road in Alabama history to the detriment of taxpayers, water resources, and more pressing infrastructure needs. ALDOT has begun work on 1.34 miles of the 52 mile proposed highway around northern Birmingham, but has not secured funding for construction on the rest of the road.

“Even as lawmakers acknowledge that our crumbling infrastructure is failing people across Alabama, this map shows statewide repercussions will continue as long as wasteful, unnecessary projects like the Northern Beltline are given lopsided priority,” said Sarah Stokes, SELC Staff Attorney. “Working toward a sustainable solution to our infrastructure problems must involve holding ALDOT to specific accountability terms, including an objective prioritization process to rank and select projects.”

SELC has advanced project-prioritization systems for transportation work in Virginia and North Carolina that have helped steer funding to infrastructure spending that meets the greatest need with the least environmental impact. Similarly, in Alabama, SELC and Black Warrior Riverkeeper maintain that the state’s limited transportation funding should be used to address safety, maintenance, and congestion issues through cost-effective projects that create jobs and cause far fewer aquatic impacts than the Northern Beltline.

“We continue to be gravely concerned about the Northern Beltline’s negative ramifications for the region’s aquatic resources,” said Nelson Brooke from Black Warrior Riverkeeper. “The Northern Beltline is a poor investment which will continue to drain funds from priority transportation projects across Alabama.”

To view a detailed version of the map outlining the 50 projects in the report, click here.

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The wrong investment for Birmingham’s future

The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) has started construction on the first two miles of a proposed 52-mile bypass north of Birmingham called the Northern Beltline. With a $5.3 billion price tag, it is the most expensive road project in Alabama history and will have significant impacts on the natural resources around Birmingham, particularly the sensitive headwaters of the Black Warrior and Cahaba rivers.

SELC and our Alabama partners want to see Birmingham thrive economically with a transportation system that supports a world-class city with a high quality of life. The Northern Beltline is the wrong answer, as the project is bad for our environment and our economy and will do little to nothing to improve Birmingham’s current transportation challenges.

One of the Most Expensive Highways in the Nation

With a staggering price tag of $102 million per mile—which doesn’t include the additional costs of sewer infrastructure, secondary road improvements, and other investments—the Northern Beltline is one of the most expensive highway projects in the country. It was ranked on the list of the nation’s biggest boondoggles and served as a poster child in a news feature on failed approaches to transportation infrastructure. According to the latest local transportation plan, the Northern Beltline would take 75 years to complete while draining more than half of the available funds for metro Birmingham throughout its construction. 

Proponents of the Northern Beltline claim that the highway would create jobs and growth for the region. But their job numbers have been highly exaggerated, are extremely costly for taxpayers compared to alternative job-creating transportation projects, and most will not materialize unless the Beltline is completed (i.e. in 75 years).

Meanwhile, other job-creating investment opportunities will be left on the shelf.

Beltline vs. Birmingham’s Other Transportation Needs

The Northern Beltline will draw dwindling federal funding away from dozens of other transportation priorities in Birmingham and throughout Alabama.

The cost of the Beltline is more than a billion dollars more than it would cost to widen and improve the area's existing interstates, fix Malfunction Junction (the intersection between I-65 and I-20/59 with one of the highest accident rates in the state), and implement ongoing maintenance and improvements for at least 50 other major highways and connections around the area.

Fighting for a Better Choice

The Northern Beltline would carry huge costs to the city’s coffers as well as the costs to the area’s waterways and other natural resources. It is a 1960s-era idea for economic growth in a 21st-century world.

As this project has continued to be pushed forward, SELC has been in court on behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper calling for an updated environmental impact study, and to challenge a permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Northern Beltline’s first phase of construction. Despite an adverse ruling in January 2016, SELC and Black Warrior Riverkeeper remain committed to seeking better solutions for Birmingham’s infrastructure needs, and implementing and enforcing a more transparent and objective process for future road projects.    

Read Frequently Asked Questions about the Northern Beltline

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