In order for the people of Birmingham to be fully aware of the goings on at the Birmingham City Council, as well as keep elected officials accountable for their actions, Weld will be publishing recaps of the city council meetings each week. Sometimes big items can slip through undetected and be passed without the public even knowing. Other times nothing controversial gets discussed. Either way, a recap of what is passed or voted down will be presented online each week. Item descriptions are presented exactly as they appeared in the council agenda.
“I have to support this and hold my nose at the same time,” Councilor Valerie Abbott said moments before the Birmingham City Council voted and approved the resolution for the redesign and replacement option for the I-20/59 bridge corridor through downtown Birmingham.
The resolution is as follows:
“A Resolution supporting the redesign and replacement option for the I-20/59 bridge corridor through Downtown Birmingham, in the interest of public safety as well as securing the integrity of intrastate and interstate traffic and commerce along this corridor. (Submitted by Councilor Rafferty) (Recommended by the Transportation and Communication Committee)”
Mayor William Bell defined the resolution as “not a perfect plan, but it’s the best plan.”
By the Alabama Department of Transportation’s early estimates, the “imperfect plan” will take approximately 18 months to complete and cost around $400 million.
“The bridge is just falling apart,” Bell said. “The whole idea of taking the bridges down is to speed up the process. We want to get it done as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
Councilor Kim Rafferty, who proposed the resolution, described it as a “necessary evil.” Rafferty said that ALDOT would have to close the bridges that are falling apart if a solution was not reached. “We don’t have time to develop another alternative,” she admitted.
ALDOT has previously stated that plans to reroute the interstate away from the downtown area would cost billions of dollars and would take up to 20 years to complete.
“ALDOT waited until chunks of the bridge started falling off to address the problem,” Abbott said. “If it continues to deteriorate, ALDOT will close the bridge completely. It’s just too darn late.”
The majority of the city council members seemed skeptical about passing the resolution, opening the door for ALDOT to begin work on the corroding bridge corridor. Nevertheless, the vote passed 7-1, with Councilor Tyson the only member voting against the resolution.
Before the vote, Councilor Lashunda Scales wanted clarification as to how long the proposed plan would take. “What if they need more than 18 months? Is that a risk we want to run?” Scales went on to say, “I would not support anything that would reroute traffic away from the economic engine,” referring to the downtown area and the newly erected Uptown entertainment district.
Bell chimed in reassuringly, saying that “[18 months] is what ALDOT is telling us. So that is the time frame.”
Regardless of how long the project may take, Council President Johnathan Austin says that the bridge corridor has long been a “perceived barrier” between the outlying communities of Birmingham.
“I understand the need to replace the bridges and bring traffic into the city. Right now it creates a barrier between the neighborhoods that surround downtown. We want to connect our communities,” Austin said.
Another big-ticket item on Tuesday’s agenda was Birmingham’s 2015 General Fund budget.
A big source of contention came last week after the council announced that merit raises for the city’s firefighters and police officers would not be included in this year’s budget, drawing widespread criticism.
Last week the council voted 5-4 to strike out the mayor’s proposed $2.5 million for the raises, reasoning that the city is already staring down the barrel of a $13 million deficit.
But the tidal wave of public outcry that followed may have swayed the vote. On Tuesday the council voted 7-1 to approve the budget — well before the June 30 deadline — that includes merit raises for about 1,800 city employees who earn them.
In order to fund the raises, the council had to go back to the drawing board after last week’s vote, eventually making $3.8 million in cuts to various departments.
In lieu of the tighter budget, Abbott said the city will be walking a thin line and that there is not any room for extra spending or amendments. “But there is more in this budget that is good than bad,” she added.
Tyson was the only council member to vote against the budget approval.