“For some reason,” John Norquist mused, “state transportation departments feel it’s important to break down obstacles to free-flowing traffic.” A former Milwaukee mayor who oversaw what has been described as “an urban renaissance in a blue-collar town blighted by flight to the suburbs,” Norquist now heads the Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes the development of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions for urban residents.
I spent some time on the phone with Norquist last Friday afternoon, talking about the Alabama Department of Transportation’s controversial plan for expanding and reconfiguring Interstate 20/59 through downtown Birmingham. Norquist, who has visited Birmingham twice — most recently in 2011, to speak against ALDOT’s proposal to build an elevated toll road to deal with traffic issues on U.S. 280 — says the proposed plan for 20/59 gives the movement of traffic through the city a higher priority than doing what is in the best interests of the city and its residents.
“It definitely will not do anything good for Birmingham,” Norquist declared. “Freeways attract through traffic that has no value to downtown at all. Actually, [the ALDOT plan] will hurt people — residents of the city and suburbs — who want to use the interstate to get downtown. They’re looking at downtown as an obstacle to getting traffic through Birmingham, not as a destination. That’s really a toxic mindset if you’re interested in maintaining and adding to the vitality of the city.”
Ideally, changing that mindset is a “top-down” proposition, meaning that elected officials and the leaders of major corporations and key institutions and nonprofits come together to lead the way in getting what the city wants, rather than accepting what is handed to it. That’s what happened in Milwaukee, when as mayor, Norquist was instrumental in igniting a downtown building boom, enhancing the city’s attractiveness to tourists and, not least, tearing down eight-tenths of a mile of elevated interstate that ran through downtown and making it a four-lane surface street tied into the existing street grid. The results, he told me last week, were remarkable.
“The great thing about a street grid is that it distributes traffic in various directions,” Norquist pointed out. “That creates all kinds of opportunities for development, revitalization and growth. That’s what we saw in Milwaukee, and that’s what’s happening in other cities across the country — and around the world, really — that are recognizing the value of alternatives to elevated freeways.”
Asked about ALDOT’s apparent out-of-hand rejection of various alternatives for I-20/59 — including making the highway through downtown a street-level boulevard similar to the Milwaukee project — Norquist said all of the arguments the department is making can be “turned right back on them.” For instance, he maintained, ALDOT’s insistence that the alternatives are too expensive fly in the face of the fact that “it costs less to tear down a freeway than to replace it” — especially an elevated highway that has reached the end of its design life. The estimated cost of rebuilding the stretch of highway Milwaukee ultimately demolished was $90 million, Norquist said; the cost of turning it into a surface street was $30 million.
Likewise with the argument that expanding I-20/59 to accommodate additional traffic will make the highway safer. ALDOT says eliminating downtown exits — another idea, Norquist said, that is “not good for businesses downtown” — will reduce traffic accidents by doing away with the need for drivers coming onto 20/59 from I-65 South to weave across several lanes of traffic to get off the interstate. Norquist said that might be true in times of peak traffic, but ignores the larger safety impacts associated with highway expansion in general.
“Road capacity is directly related to deaths,” he said. “The greater the capacity of the road, the more likely people are to drive faster. So when they’re talking about safety, you have to ask what they really mean.”
To all appearances, political leadership of the type Norquist prescribed will not be forthcoming in the fight over the future of I-20/59. Mayor William Bell has been all but invisible and, as noted in the story that begins on page 9 of this issue, a majority of the Birmingham City Council seems resigned to the idea that ALDOT will do what it wants with the highway. The lone exception to date is Councilor Johnathan Austin, with whom I also spoke last Friday. Among other comments, Austin posed a rhetorical question that gets at Norquist’s points, while also highlighting what he believes are larger political issues raised by the ALDOT plan and local response to it.
“Why is Birmingham the only major city in Alabama with an interstate running through the middle of it?” Austin asked. “Now, ALDOT wants to take a bad idea and make it worse. They want to rebuild a bridge through downtown, when every major city in the country is looking for alternatives to building elevated highways. This is our city, and ALDOT should be working in unison with us, not trying to shove something down our throats because it suits them.”
Like Austin — and as I have done in this space — Norquist pointed to the I-20/59 project as an opportunity for Birmingham to take control of its own civic destiny. Making that point, the former mayor noted that the North American city with the strongest real estate market over the past 20 years is Vancouver, British Columbia — in which there is “not one inch of freeway.” He contrasted that with Detroit, where elevated highways, presumably built to relieve congestion, abound — and where there is no congestion, not because of the highways, but because the city is dead economically.
“It’s Birmingham’s choice,” Norquist told me just before we hung up. “Do you want to be like Vancouver, or do you want to be like Detroit?”