It has been some weeks since I wrote at any length about the Alabama Department of Transportation’s efforts to ruin the city of Birmingham — also known as the reconfiguration of Interstate 20/59. In the interim, like a latter-day Diogenes, I have continued to search in vain, not for an honest man, but for someone who will look me in the eye and tell me they believe that ALDOT’s plan for the highway through downtown is a fine idea.
As a reminder, that plan calls for the elimination of current entrance/exit ramps at 17th Street North and 22nd Street North. ALDOT also intends to make 11th Avenue North the primary artery between the interstate and points downtown, expanding it to five lanes to accommodate an increase in average daily traffic count from the current 5,000 vehicles to as many as 40,000.
ALDOT’s most recent public comments on its plans for the highway through downtown Birmingham came in early August, at a media briefing held at its division headquarters here. ALDOT Director John Cooper highlighted several changes his agency has made to its original proposal, most notably the decision to keep the ramp at 31st Street open. But Cooper also rejected out of hand the idea that any alternative plan will work, saying of the alternatives that have been discussed publicly that, “I do not believe they are doable, I cannot afford them, and I do not have the time” to implement any of them.
Cooper’s comments were met with great skepticism from opponents of the plan. In the weeks since the briefing here, opposition has been growing quietly, and has come to include some prominent citizens who, while not yet willing to go public, have been talking privately among themselves and, either directly or through channels, with Mayor William Bell.
“I don’t understand why ALDOT is saying they can’t do that,” one such citizen said to me early this week. This person was referencing the alternative around which opponents of the ALDOT plan seem to be uniting, that of tearing down the interstate downtown and replacing it with a street-level boulevard while re-routing 20/59 northward around downtown and tying it into Finley Avenue.
“We need to slow the train down until we can really get our arms around an alternative and, as a community, advance it to ALDOT,” they added. “Who can do that? The mayor.”
I’m going to take a moment here to remind the reader that I — among many others — have been calling on Mayor Bell for months to take advantage of what I view as a legacy-defining leadership opportunity. He was almost completely silent on the issue during the recent (admittedly lackluster) mayoral race, and has since been preoccupied with the culmination of the city’s “50 Years Forward” commemoration of the Civil Rights events of 1963. I heard rumblings over the past couple of weeks that he might be taking a hard look at stepping out front on 20/59, but frankly doubted that it would actually happen.
It looks as though I might have been wrong. I certainly hope so.
“The mayor is a very strategic guy who likes to take a methodical approach to things,” Bell’s chief of staff, ChuckFaush, told me Monday afternoon. “What happens with 20/59 is going to impact our city for decades to come, and Mayor Bell is going to look at every opportunity and every challenge to making it absolutely right.”
Faush said that Bell has been determined from the start to listen to all points of view and look at the project “piece-by-piece.” He points to ALDOT’s decision on the 31st Street exit as evidence of the mayor’s ability to “talk to people and get things done.” I asked Faush if, as I had been told, Bell met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to discuss the project when Foxx was in town last week. While he would not confirm that a meeting took place, Faush said “significant progress has been made” during Bell’s administration in building strong relationships with the Department of Transportation and other federal agencies, and that those “relationships and conversations are ongoing and productive.
“He has very good relationships at both the state and federal levels,” Faush said. “He’s got people talking, and I think that’s due in part to his taking a deliberate approach to this issue. I don’t think anything’s a done deal yet.”
I asked Faush for Mayor Bell’s view of the implications, both immediate and long-term, of how the 20/59 project plays out. Without directly expressing any opposition — either on behalf of the mayor or personally — to the plan as proposed by ALDOT, Faush referred to the way in which the interstate has divided the city both literally and figuratively since its construction more than four decades ago.
“Birmingham has such momentum right now,” Faush said. “We shouldn’t let anything stand in the way of our economic development, of the prosperity of our neighborhoods and communities, or of doing things in a way that serves all of the people, not just some.”
Birmingham has spent all of 2013 paying tribute to what can happen when people stand up for what is right and good — and to the strong leadership that is required to achieve great things. As we now look to the future of our city and the things that we need to do to ensure its greatness, we need strong leadership on the 20/59 issue from the only person who is in a position to provide it. Here’s hoping Mayor Bell is ready to step all the way into the breach. And if he does, he deserves all of the support we can give him.