The Alabama Department of Transportation’s plan for reconfiguring Interstate 20/59 through downtown Birmingham will undergo further alteration before the final design is presented this fall. But ALDOT Director John Cooper says opponents of the plan who advocate an alternative — such as burying the highway in a tunnel, turning it into a street-level boulevard tied into the existing grid, or rerouting it northward — are not taking the realities of the $330 million project into full consideration.
“The alternatives that I have heard about I do not believe are doable,” Cooper told Weld following a media briefing held on August 2 at the ALDOT division office on Bankhead Highway. In addressing the question, Cooper reduced the alternatives to two, referencing the boulevard idea as an “accompaniment” to burying the interstate.
“Even if they were doable, they would be terribly expensive,” Cooper said. “I don’t have that amount of money. And if someone gave me the money, they both would be terribly time-consuming, and I don’t have the time. The bridges need to be replaced now, and either of those projects would be well beyond 10 years in implementation.”
According to Cooper, implementation of either alternative would be complicated by issues beyond simply deciding to move the project in a different direction. Rerouting the interstate to Finley Boulevard would be “besot with environmental challenges,” he said, while burying the highway “would have its own set of environmental issues, and certainly would have a lot of geometric challenges,” most notably the need to connect downtown to Red Mountain expressway only by a surface street, rather than a direct interchange with I-20/59. He cited the latter as just one example of the challenges that would be created by the proposed alternatives, saying that he believes that local drivers “wouldn’t like” them.
“The proposals that I have seen all involve tremendous limitations on the interstate that I think would be unacceptable to the general public,” said Cooper. “So my order of response to the other proposals is that I do not believe they are doable, I cannot afford them, and I do not have the time.”
During the hour-long briefing and news conference prior to his comments to Weld, Cooper outlined the components of the 20/59 project, including what he termed the “rehabilitation and refurbishment” of 11th Avenue North. Under the ALDOT plan, current entrance/exit ramps at 17th Street and 22nd Street would be eliminated, and 11th Avenue would become the primary artery between downtown and the interstate, expanded to five lanes to accommodate a traffic count that would increase from the current 5,000 vehicles per day to as many as 40,000.
Removal of downtown access and the expansion of 11th Avenue are at the heart of objections to the ALDOT plan. Among other things, opponents say the loss of the exits will have a negative impact on accessibility — serving through traffic at the expense of residents, commuters and downtown businesses — and the overall vitality of the city’s central business district. The 11th Avenue expansion has been a sore spot with both the management of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex and residents of the Norwood neighborhood. Cooper downplayed those concerns, especially the assertion that the reconfigured highway would be a detriment to downtown activity and development.
“This is going to be a significant improvement for the city of Birmingham,” Cooper declared. “It does change the way people will come to downtown, which is ‘pro’ for some folks and it’s negative for some folks. But we believe it makes things more convenient. For example, it will allow you to access downtown without having to navigate any route interchange. I think that would be a tremendous improvement.
“In looking at a trip,” Cooper added, “we think you should look at the total trip, not the time you either wait or move at a specific place. If we move traffic more efficiently through town, it enables the person coming into town to a specific point to get to that point much quicker, and to arrive at their ultimate in-town destination sooner. So, to the contrary, I would argue that we are working to accommodate both sets of traffic, and we think our plan does that.”
The reconfiguration of 20/59 actually would enhance the connection between the BJCC and downtown by tying cross streets into the expanded 11th Avenue, Cooper contended. That would be part of a longer-term plan to improve access to the entire downtown area — “from the Civic Center all the way to the base of Red Mountain” — from the three major highway corridors that border it (I-65, I-20/59 and the Red Mountain Expressway), including high-traffic areas such as UAB and the city’s new baseball stadium, Regions Field.
A primary impetus for getting the 20/59 project underway is safety, Cooper said. He pointed out that the short stretch between the I-65 interchange and the 31st Street exit has the highest daily traffic count in Alabama, at approximately 158,000 vehicles — a figure roughly three times what it was designed to carry. Currently, that traffic is channeled through just three lanes on each side, with no shoulders to accommodate accidents and breakdowns, a configuration that also affects the interchange from 20/59 to Red Mountain Expressway.
“That has a definite negative affect,” Cooper said. “Any vehicle disabled for any reason more or less paralyzes the corridor until it can be cleared. When one becomes disabled during the rush hour, or anytime attendant to the rush hour, it’s exacerbated significantly. The plan we have developed will allow us to rebuild that, to have an additional lane and an auxiliary lane through that area, and to have full-width shoulders on both sides. All of that will enable traffic to move better and more safely.”
Cooper also took note of numerous changes that ALDOT has made to its original proposal for the 20/59 project. The most substantial of those is the department’s reversal of its original intent to eliminate entry and exit at 31st Street North. That decision came in response to objections from businesses in the Norwood Industrial District that lies south of the interstate, as well as the Norwood neighborhood to the north. Various other changes — for example, slight alterations to the 11th Avenue plan, and keeping 24th and 28th Streets open — have been made to accommodate concerns expressed by the neighborhood and the BJCC, Cooper said.
“The BJCC is a major part of our planning,” said Cooper. “We have made several changes in their interest, and I expect that we will make more before the plan is finalized. I also believe that the things expressed by the Norwood neighborhood in our public hearing there, in terms of access to the neighborhood, have been addressed.”
Construction on the I-20/59 project is slated to get underway in 2014, beginning with the expansion of 11th Avenue. Cooper said ALDOT hopes to complete that component before starting work on the interstate itself, “probably in late 2015.” According to ALDOT estimates, once that work begins, the interstate will be shut down entirely for 12-14 months.