Did you know that highway department officials plan to tear down Interstate 59 through downtown Birmingham, replace it with a taller, wider bridge constructed of concrete, permanently close some exits, and reroute traffic to 11th Avenue North and I-459 to the south?
Some residents of Norwood, one of the neighborhoods closest to I-59 downtown, not only know about the plan, but judging by their reactions at a community meeting last week, they don’t like it. They fear that the interstate changes will mean less access to downtown for residents of neighborhoods north of the highway, including Druid Hills and Fountain Heights.
Norwood residents also worry about how the Alabama Department of Transportation construction project will impact their neighborhood because of noise, aesthetics and the increased traffic that will be driven to 11th Avenue.
ALDOT officials, conversely, contend that they’re making the changes to I-59 to make the busiest stretch of interstate in the state safer, that their planning has already involved talks with the city and Jefferson County officials, and that they are willing to give fair consideration to the concerns of residents.
“We’re looking at [those concerns] now,” said ALDOT Division Engineer Brian Davis. “We had a public involvement meeting [March 28, at Boutwell Auditorium], so those comments are coming in, people’s concerns are coming in, and we’re looking at them and evaluating them now. … They are always considered. Can you modify your design to accommodate every one of those comments? I don’t know that. But every one of them will be reviewed. Every one of them will be considered, and we’ll look at our design relative to those comments and determine if we need to change anything.
“I’m not in a position today to say we’re going to modify our plan because of them. We’re going to reevaluate our plan because of them and determine, have we done the right thing?”
Still, some city residents see deeper issues — issues related to disconnecting neighborhoods from access and opportunity, and the continuation of the harm caused by the historical use of infrastructure to enforce segregation.
“The original layout of the major highways in Birmingham was informed by a policy of ‘blight prevention’ that deliberately resulted in the segregation of races,” wrote Ben Gallagher, a Norwood resident who created a petition opposing the freeway changes. “The net effect of these proposed modifications is that a number of existing street grid connections will be lost or impaired. … These lost connections will further divide the communities living and working near the interstate rather than right the wrongs of the past.”
Gallagher said he is not accusing the highway department of deliberately perpetuating the racially motivated decisions of years gone by. “I do not believe any one at ALDOT is trying to hurt minority communities,” he said. “However, the fact that minority neighborhoods will be further cut off from the downtown street grid as part of this plan is a consequence of the original alignment choices made decades ago.”
Davis said the plan, which would begin as early as next year with modifications to 11th Avenue North, is designed to correct safety issues designed into the original construction. For instance, a number of exits and on-ramps for I-59 downtown force drivers to crisscross each other’s lanes in what engineers call a “weave” pattern.
That design leads to more accidents, for example, at the 17th Street North exit just outside of Malfunction Junction. As a result, that exit and the exits at 22nd Street north and south, and the on-ramps at 23rd Street northbound and 18th Street southbound, are slated to be removed in the new plan.
The notion of removing exits did not sit well with residents at the meeting at the Norwood Community Center last week, which was led by Gallagher. Norwood residents vowed to fight the current plan. They pledged to write letters to the editor and to engage other Birmingham residents through social media, talked of erecting billboards to inform motorists of changes they may be unaware of, and of voicing their displeasure to ALDOT, politicians and even business owners at the Sheraton and Birmingham Barons, among other things.
Their sense of urgency was enhanced by a looming deadline: ALDOT has given anyone who has comments on the plan until this Friday to speak their piece, although Davis indicated to Weld that even comments coming in after the deadline will be considered. Norwood residents, though, think ALDOT is already moving toward making this plan reality, even as citizens try to stop it.
Several expressed concern that the highway department is more concerned with moving traffic quickly through the city than about the plan’s impact on Birmingham residents. “If you live here, this ain’t for you,” said Peter Maynard, a Norwood resident and investor who is rehabilitating homes in Norwood. “This is for people to blow through Birmingham.”
Even before the meeting last week, Norwood’s defenders were up in arms about the highway plan. Attorney Chervis Isom, a Norwood native, wrote to Davis, on April 11, that “I am gravely concerned about the long-term effects of the plan. … The corridor through the City of Birmingham itself is a major barrier between the downtown and that part of the City lying north of the interstate… Much of the neighborhood to the north, particularly Norwood, no longer has accessibility as it previously had, which adversely affects healthcare, fire safety and access to downtown. It is clear from your plan that you have no interest in City planning or what might best serve our City. Your only interest appears to be the movement of traffic as rapidly as it will go through the City.”
Davis disputed the idea that ALDOT has given no consideration to residents’ concerns.
“If ALDOT took the position that all I’m interested in is speeding traffic through and I don’t care about anybody, we would not be coordinating this with the city of Birmingham. We would not be coordinating this with the civic center and the business community. We would not be holding these public involvement meetings and getting comments from people. We would not be entertaining these comments,” Davis said. “So, I’d like to think that we’re doing what we should do, and that is as engineers designing what we think to be the best roadway, but then being honest that we need to go back and look at it from other perspectives and take these public comments and analyze our designs based on that, and see if we’re really doing the right thing in the big picture of things.”
It is clear that the plan, as currently outlined, will not only affect residents of the northern neighborhoods, but also anyone using the interstate to access downtown buildings including Boutwell, the Jefferson County Courthouse, Birmingham City Hall, the federal courthouse, the main branch of the United States Postal Service, the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center Convention Complex, the new entertainment district, the Birmingham Museum of Art, the main branch of the Birmingham Public Library, the entire Civil Rights District, the Alabama School of Fine Arts and more.
Here’s the plan, as described on the ALDOT website:
“The project as proposed will be constructed in two phases. The first phase will construct the 11th Avenue North corridor improvements and ramp connections to I-59/20 and to I-65. The 11th Avenue North corridor will be used by local traffic accessing the CBD [Central Business District] during the second construction phase and on into the future.
“The second phase will be to replace the bridges on I-59/20 through the CBD. The bridge decks will be modified to incorporate auxiliary lanes and the existing steel girders that will be replaced with segmental concrete construction. This work will also include replacing the existing signing, Intelligent Transportation System and lighting elements along I-59/20. Vehicles traveling through Birmingham along I-59/20 will be detoured on I-459 during construction. Local traffic will be able to use the improved 11th Avenue North corridor to access the CBD.”
The entire project began with an ALDOT proposal to replace the aging bridge deck on the section of 59 in front of the civic center, Davis said. “The city of Birmingham and Jefferson County came to the department and said, ‘We’d like you guys to consider not just replacing the deck, we’d like you to consider replacing the entire bridge, provided we could get more capacity, provided we could do some things to mitigate noise…under the bridge, around the entertainment district and around the civic center.’ There were some aesthetics issues — we wanted to try to make that bridge look better. So we agreed to go back and look at that proposal. Whenever we did that we came up with not just replacing the bridge deck, but replacing the entire structure. We knew we had operational problems with the ramps that exist out there today.”
As it stands now, the proposal will take up to two-and-a-half years, with the bridge replacement beginning in 2015. Construction crews will remove ramps between the I-65 junction and 31st Street, replace the bridge with a taller, wider span built of segmental concrete and change the way traffic crosses the path of the interstate.
One feature would have the bridge from 12th Avenue North, a major entrance into the Norwood neighborhood, removed. There would be a new access flyover from 11th Avenue east bound to 31st Street, but the eastbound exit from I-59 North to 31st Street would be gone. That exit currently allows traffic to turn left into Norwood or right toward First Avenue or Sloss Furnaces.
Certain roads which Norwood residents consider essential would not pass completely through to downtown, including 24th, 25th, and 28th Streets — although ALDOT says that even that is not set in stone. Residents of Fountain Heights could also find their access to the interstate, currently possible via 11th Avenue, rerouted because of the plan.
During the reconstruction of the I-59 bridge through downtown, drivers who want to stay on the interstate would be detoured around the city to the south along I-459, according to the ALDOT plan. Because preliminary bridge work could be done before closing and shutting down the current bridge, the freeway would likely only be closed for a year for replacement, ALDOT officials said.
Meanwhile, there is a chance that the plan can be modified. And Councillor Maxine Parker said the city would hold a meeting with ALDOT for citizens to “do exactly what you are doing tonight.” Engaging in dialogue with the highway department is key to having their voices heard, she said. “You’ve got to stay connected.”
Staying connected — to downtown — is at the center of what Norwood residents want. ALDOT contends it is listening. How it all will develop remains to be seen.
For Weld Publisher Mark Kelly’s take on ALDOT and the I-59 controversy, see this week’s Red Dirt.