Two non-profit environmental groups have asked the Birmingham Metropolitan Planning Organization to remove the Northern Beltline from the proposed four-year funding plan “because of the project’s ballooning price tag, questionable economic benefits and harmful effects on the environment,” according to a press release from the Black Warrior Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The group are urging the MPO to invest instead in transportation projects that will bring sustainable economic growth to the region “in the most cost-effective manner possible.” At about $4.7 billion — or $90 million per mile — the Northern Beltline “would rank as one of the most expensive highways ever built in the U.S.,” the groups say. State taxpayers would pay nearly $1 billion of the cost, “almost equal to Alabama Department of Transportation’s statewide construction and maintenance budget for an entire year.”
“Birmingham has just been ranked the number two gas guzzling city in the country,” Sarah Stokes, SELC associate attorney, said in the statement. “Local officials should be pushing the federal and state governments to fund public transit or fix ‘Malfunction Junction’ not build a 52-mile highway far from the city center that will just mean more driving for Birmingham.”
According to the MPO’s Transportation Improvement Program, ALDOT will spend $81,691,940 on the Northern Beltline during fiscal years 2012 through 2015 — almost half of its budget for the entire Birmingham area, severely limiting funding for other, higher priority projects in the six-county region.
The state has allocated just 5.3 percent of funding for bridge projects, 1.5 percent to maintenance, .6 percent for air quality and traffic mitigation, and a mere .03 percent to safety projects. Transit projects would receive nothing from the state. The funding plan also leaves most localities to foot the bill for sidewalks, pedestrian overpasses and greenways.
In comments filed with the MPO on Tuesday, Black Warrior Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center identify several thriving Southeastern cities that do not have a completed loop, including Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Charleston, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Tampa, and Orlando. The groups point to Greenville, South Carolina and Fort Wayne, Indiana as instructive examples where costly beltlines were built to spur economic growth that never materialized.
Not only is the cost to build the Northern Beltline astronomical, the groups say, the additional costs to localities for new sewer, water, other utilities, school, public safety and road improvements must be considered. Due to the full costs associated with projects like this, many cities – including a number in the Southeast such as Charleston and Nashville – have abandoned or held off on plans for beltways.
By law, the MPO is required to consider projects and strategies that will “protect and enhance the environment” and “promote energy conservation.” Instead, the two environmental groups say, the Northern Beltline will do the exact opposite, promoting urban sprawl and exacerbating air pollution in the region. Further, the Beltline would be built over critical areas of the Black Warrior and Cahaba watersheds, which furnish the region’s drinking water, provide recreation opportunities and supply valuable wildlife habitat for rare and endangered species.
“ALDOT needs to focus its energy on fixing our outdated and crumbling infrastructure, and on more modern methods of transportation that will reduce congestion and pollution as well as promote more efficient commutes,” Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke said. “ALDOT’s inadequate study of this road’s cumulative economic and environmental impacts led to decisions being made in a vacuum without proper planning or public input.”
Earlier this year, Riverkeeper group, represented by SELC, filed a lawsuit against ALDOT and the Federal Highway Administration under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) for failing to undertake a full analysis of the indirect and cumulative impacts of the Northern Beltline. The groups claim that since the full comprehensive study has not been completed, the MPO is prematurely allocating significant money to this project for right-of-way acquisition and construction before all the facts are known.
© 2011, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.