The clock is ticking for an environmental group seeking to halt construction on the first phase of the controversial Northern Beltline.
With a contract letting set for Nov. 22 for the project and construction set to begin in 2014, Black Warrior Riverkeeper is asking a federal judge to stop the process in its tracks before any work on the 1.86 mile segment of the highway is awarded.
The Southern Environmental Law Center last week (October 25) filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Birmingham-based nonprofit in U.S. District Court. The lawsuit claims the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers improperly issued the permit for the project when it only considered the environmental impact of the small segment of highway slated to be built starting next year, rather than considering the full 52-mile Beltline.
“The Northern Beltline will cross and permanently alter Black Warrior and Cahaba river tributaries in 67 places,” Nelson Brooke of Black Warrior Riverkeeper said in a statement after the lawsuit was filed. “ALDOT and FHWA have not adequately studied impacts to water resources and wildlife along the entire chosen route, which is the longest and most environmentally destructive of the seven routes considered.”
Northern Beltline proponents point to a long list of possible benefits that could come from the construction of the highway — improved traffic flow, improved air quality and significant economic impact, to the tune of $155 million in tax revenues and 70,000 jobs created. Projections indicate the construction of the Beltline could span at least 20 years.
SELC attorney Sarah Stokes says she hopes the matter comes before a federal judge before contractors are hired for the small segment that will connect Alabama 75 with Alabama 79 in Pinson. Construction is set to begin in early 2014. So far, Stokes says, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Alabama Department of Transportation have not responded in court to the lawsuit.
Tony Harris, spokesman for ALDOT, says the agency is reviewing the lawsuit.
“Any response that may be necessary will be filed with the court in a timely manner,” he says.
Stokes not only questions the environmental impact, but also the decision to use limited federal transportation money on the Beltline, while other, possibly more worthy projects are neglected. About $160 million has been designated for the Beltline, but Stokes says once that money is gone, the remainder of the funding — about $5.2 billion — will have to come from federal funding that could be used to address I-20/59 improvements and dozens of other road projects.
“Proper analysis required by law would show that this project’s significant environmental impacts are not justified by its costs,” Stokes says.