Few can be induced to labor exclusively for posterity. After all, posterity has done nothing for us.
— Abraham Lincoln
I’m sitting down late on a thundery Monday night in Birmingham to write, yet again, of the current plan for reconfiguring Interstate 20/59 through downtown. I’ve written repeatedly about this travesty for nearly four months and counting now, and while I recognize that such insistent coverage may strike a vexing note of discord in the chorus of self-regard currently ringing through many quarters of our community, I’m afraid it’s necessary.
It’s necessary because what the Alabama Department of Transportation proposes is an unmitigated affront to the public trust, at least as represented by the best interests of current and future citizens of Birmingham.
It’s necessary because ALDOT is proceeding apace with a project that will impact development patterns, revitalization efforts, residential growth, real estate values, civic life and general economic and social well-being in Birmingham — especially the downtown area and surrounding urban neighborhoods to the north — for the next generation.
It’s necessary because ALDOT is pursuing its plans completely unimpeded by any uprising of leadership from among a slew of supposed leaders, including but not limited to the mayor and city council of Birmingham, the Birmingham Business Alliance and key executives of the corporations, firms and organizations that collectively employ tens of thousands of people downtown, and presumably would like to see the location in which they are headquartered positioned to thrive, rather than having to overcome manmade obstacles to stability and prosperity.
It’s necessary, perhaps above all, because any thinking person with a pulse can take one look at the plan that is now on the table — revisions and all — and understand the long-term implications of its construction.
And people do understand that. People have looked at the plan — and considered the alternatives, and concluded that building this road in this way in this place is the second-dumbest thing that can possibly be done, ranking just behind doing nothing at all. I don’t think this is going to happen, but I would bet that a public opinion poll would find sentiment overwhelmingly against the ALDOT plan.
Lacking such data, I’m left to rely upon what I hear. In that vein, I have heard about 20/59 from a lot of thoughtful and concerned folks from across the city and beyond (not one of whom, I freely stipulate, is in the business of building roads and bridges). While the perspectives differ by degree, there is among them a thread of unison: None of them profess to believe the ALDOT plan is the best Birmingham can do.
The problem, much like Mark Twain’s observation regarding the tendency of people to complain about the weather, is that, with notable exceptions, very few of them seem to be doing much about it. That’s particularly true of those who would like to see a better plan — more about which in a moment — and who have sufficient standing and influence in the community to lend real weight to demands for a preferable and viable alternative, and who have elected not to involve themselves in this fight for the future of the community.
None of which is meant to take anything away from the grassroots opposition that has arisen. Most visible and vocal is Rethink 20/59, a Facebook-based group that also has been holding weekly meetings for the past few months. But with time beginning to run woefully short for doing the things that would be necessary to stop ALDOT in its tracks and advance a better solution — seeking an injunction to delay construction, say, or commissioning a reputable independent study comparing the economic, environmental and other impacts of the ALDOT plan against other alternatives — money and influence are commodities of which Rethink 20/59 and other opponents find themselves substantially wanting.
What are the alternatives? At least three have been advanced, by far the best of which, in my opinion, is tearing down the interstate through downtown and replacing it with a street-level boulevard. This alternative has numerous advantages to the city — perhaps not to ALDOT, and certainly not to the pass-through traffic to which its plan for 20/59 caters at the expense of people who live and work in Birmingham — which I will discuss in detail next week in this space. For now, suffice it to say that unless people — influential people with the best interests of the community in mind — step forward to help lead and support this pivotal battle in the fight to make Birmingham the best it can possibly be, the cause, however noble, probably is lost.
Of course, if the history of our city teaches us nothing else, it should impress upon us the power of the few against the many, of what can happen when the forces of progress amass against the battlements of an intransigent status quo. History tells us that Birmingham can change, but we are still awaiting the answer to the question of whether that change can be sustained, built upon, expanded.
In that sense, the fight over the future of 20/59 touches on every major issue we face as a community, and the range of options that will be available to us in addressing them over the next 10, 25, 50 years. Poverty, education, transportation, recreation, public health, human relations — these and more are tied into the fate of a stretch of road that has done nothing in the four decades of its existence to date but divide us.
Haven’t we had enough of that?