The Northern Beltline is a proposed 52 mile, 6-lane interstate in northern Jefferson County, Alabama. The road will pollute water and other natural resources in the Birmingham region and will cost $5.342 billion, or $102.7 million per mile.
What environmental impacts will the Beltline have?
Any 52-mile, 6-lane interstate is going to have tremendous environmental impacts to all natural resources. Birmingham’s air quality, water quality, forested acreage, and wetlands will all be degraded. Specifically, the Northern Beltline will cross and permanently alter Black Warrior and Cahaba river tributaries in 90 places, and it will impact 35 different wetlands and 3,078 football fields' worth of forest.
Of particular concern is the fact that the Beltline will impact the tops of both the Cahaba and Black Warrior River watersheds, primary drinking water sources for Birmingham and surrounding communities. Streams will be culverted, channelized, rerouted, or simply paved over. Even streams that are bridged risk being harmed by chemical or gasoline spills. Polluted stormwater runoff will increase dramatically over current levels. The current proposed route is the most environmentally destructive of the seven routes initially considered by the Alabama Department of Transportation.
Will the Northern Beltline relieve traffic in downtown Birmingham?
No. The Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham projected that only 1% to 3% of traffic through downtown Birmingham on I-20/59 would be relieved if the Northern Beltline were built, and that the project will not reroute significant truck traffic (RPC, Public Involvement Meeting Documentation, April 2010, p. 4-17.). The RPC has also ranked 35 other transportation projects ahead of the Northern Beltline in importance, in large part because of the Beltline’s limited ability to help with traffic congestion.
Traffic analyses in ALDOT’s own studies also do not support the claim that the Beltline will reduce traffic or congestion. In fact, the Beltline will actually increase traffic on the already heavily congested section of I-59 between the current I-59/I-459 interchange and the planned Beltline interchange at I-59 in Trussville.
Aren’t we the only southeastern city without a ring around the city?
No. Many large and growing southern metro areas such as Orlando, Tampa, and Chattanooga do not have completed beltway routes around their cities. But more to the point, a complete beltline does not automatically translate into economic growth or low unemployment (see the 2012 report from the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, p. 26.). In many cities, the construction of a beltline was in response to strong localized growth pressures, which are not present in northern Jefferson County. Furthermore, many beltlines were constructed in the 1960s when growth and economic development patterns were very different than they are today.
How many jobs will the Beltline bring to the Birmingham area?
Birmingham is in need of strong economic growth and new jobs, but the Beltline is not the way to do it. While supporters of the Beltline claim that it would produce 77,000 construction jobs, this is an outlandish and inaccurate estimate. Just look at the math. The Beltline is 52 miles long in its current configuration. If the road were to produce 77,000 jobs, that would work out to 1,480 construction jobs per mile. No road project anywhere can produce anything approaching this number.
In fact, most of the 77,000 jobs number comes from a deliberate misinterpretation of job-years as permanent jobs. A job-year is simply the number of jobs produced in any one year. For example, someone who worked a single job for 25 years would be credited for having 25 jobs under this logic. The real construction job number is likely to be around 1,600. And these jobs may not even be given to Alabama workers; a company from Tennessee was awarded the bid to work on the first segment.
Proponents of the road also argue that the road will produce 20,000 permanent jobs when (if) it is ever completed. This number is also fictional. Even ALDOT has said in its most recent study of the road that only about 2,800 permanent jobs may be produced. Further, any permanent job would not materialize along the Beltline until it is complete or substantially complete, which won’t happen for decades if it ever happens at all. And because of sluggish population growth projections for most of northern Jefferson County (which hold true regardless of whether the project is built), any permanent job will likely just be a job relocated from elsewhere within metro Birmingham, which wouldn’t represent net “new” growth for the region.
The proponents’ jobs numbers are problematic for several other reasons. For more information, see the report written by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.
Is the Northern Beltline the only way to bring jobs to metro Birmingham?
Absolutely not. Any transportation project will produce both construction jobs and permanent jobs by improving Birmingham’s overall transportation network. The trick is to find the projects that will produce the most jobs at the least cost, and in the shortest amount of time. The Northern Beltline is a poor choice for investment given all the other transportation needs around Birmingham.
It’s also a very outdated approach to job creation. Studies show that fewer people (both nationally and in Birmingham) are choosing to live in the suburbs as compared to 50 years ago (when the Beltline was first conceptualized). It would be like Birmingham in the 1950s investing all of its transportation resources in horse-and-buggy technology.
Won’t the Northern Beltline bring tens of thousands of people to live in north Jefferson County?
No. Beltline supporters predict that the Northern Beltline will increase the population in the corridor by 6,527 people (126 people per mile), while ALDOT predicts that the Northern Beltline will attract 2,208 people to the area (43 people per mile, a 1.5% change). While any growth is positive, we should demand more for $102 million a mile and look for projects that can bring more growth at less cost to taxpayers and our natural resources.
But didn’t I-459 bring all that growth to the southern metro Birmingham area?
No. The growth in the southern areas of metro Birmingham was already in motion before I-459 was constructed. Ingredients included a robust existing secondary road system, highly-ranked schools, more extensive sewer infrastructure, higher population growth rates (occurring both before and after the construction of I-459), and numerous other factors. These factors are largely missing from the areas around the Northern Beltline.
I’ve heard that funding for the Beltline is “use it or lose it”?
That was never quite accurate and more importantly is no longer the case. The federal transportation bill that passed in 2012 moved the Beltline into a group of projects that fall into two broad funding categories – “Surface Transportation Projects” and “National Highway Performance Program.” These categories include projects ranging from road resurfacing, bridge replacement, widening, and new construction, to transit. What this means is that now, every federal dollar that goes towards the Beltline is one less dollar that could have been spent on dozens of other projects in our area. In fact, metro Birmingham could widen I-65 and I-59 and complete all 50 projects listed in the Regional Planning Commission’s visionary plan (which includes fixing Malfunction Junction, the intersection with one of the highest death tolls in the state) for $1 billion less than the cost of the Beltline alone. Each of these projects would also create jobs, at far lower cost to taxpayers.
Before the 2012 transportation bill, the Beltline money could only have been used on other Appalachian Development Highway projects around Alabama, such as Corridor X.
The most recent federal surface transportation bill signed into law in December 2015, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, allots Alabama an additional $30 million for transportation projects. The FAST Act continues to allow future Northern Beltline dollars to be spent on a variety of other transportation projects.
The reality is that ALDOT has only obtained dedicated funding for the first 1.86 mile segment of the Northern Beltline, and the agency has not indicated how it will pay for the rest of the project. This is particularly problematic considering that the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which Alabama relies on to fund transportation projects all over the state, has teetered on the edge of insolvency for the past few years and has required numerous stopgap measures to prevent bankruptcy.
Doesn’t northern Jefferson County need more east-west access?
The answer to this question depends on what part of the Beltline route you are assessing. To take one example, the first segment of the Beltline would connect AL 75 and AL 79. These roads already have a number of connections, both north and south of the Beltline. Trussville and Clay also already have numerous east-west connections.
The Beltline has been pitched as the only possible way to provide access to this part of the county. If parts of this area do need more access points, why not look at other less expensive options compared to a 6-lane, 52-mile interstate? If the goal is to increase access, ALDOT should conduct a study with that goal in mind and should look at all alternatives, including improving the existing road network where possible. There are many ways to achieve improved access for less than $5.3 billion, including many non-interstate options.