“What’s the quote?” John Cooper asked, by way of deflecting the compliment a visitor had offered sincerely, if somewhat grudgingly.
“‘Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,’” Cooper recited, laughing. “I’m not sure I want to be known for consistency.”
Protestations aside, Cooper has been nothing if not consistent in his role as director of the Alabama Department of Transportation. As that relates to Birmingham, he has spent nearly four years insisting that his agency will not be deterred from its plans for rebuilding and expanding Interstate 20/59 along the route that the highway has followed through the city’s downtown area since its completion more than 40 years ago.
Cooper has done so in the face of opposition to his plan — and calls for an alternative, most notably one that would move the interstate out of downtown altogether. But even as opposition has begun to coalesce — around a lawsuit filed to stop the project, around the grassroots advocacy group Move I-20/59 and around financial and other support now emerging from a group of influential private citizens (nine of whom recently released a joint statement calling for ALDOT to stop and consider alternatives) — Cooper and ALDOT continue to move forward.
On Feb. 4, Weld publisher Mark Kelly — who has written and commented extensively about the 20/59 project — sat down with Cooper at ALDOT’s offices off U.S. Highway 280 in Shelby County. The hourlong conversation was freewheeling and occasionally contentious, but also revealed a healthy sense of humor in a man whom a recent Kelly editorial likened to a Soviet dictator (taking his seat at the conference table, the ALDOT director pulled from beneath his chair a mocked-up nameplate that read, “John ‘Commissar’ Cooper”).
“My job is to build roads,” Cooper has been quoted frequently. While he doesn’t quite repeat those words in this interview, he is consistently unequivocal in his insistence that getting this particular road re-built as planned — “before it falls down,” he half-joked at one point — is a task he intends to complete.
Kelly: I’ll start by acknowledging that I’ve asked you some of these questions before.
Cooper: And some of it, you’re not going to like my answers any better today than you did any of the other times.
Kelly: That’s fair enough. So why is it too late to change the orientation, and even the location, of this project?
Cooper: Changing the location would take more than 20 years — if you could do it, and we don’t believe you can do it. We certainly don’t believe we could do it.
Kelly: Can you elaborate on that?
I don’t believe there’s any way that the Alabama Department of Transportation can build an interstate highway in a minority and low-income neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama. I think that for ALDOT to pursue it would be fatal to any outcome you might want to see.
Kelly: Might it not be possible to make the case for moving it by looking at factors like the density of population along the proposed Finley Boulevard route?
Cooper: See, now you’re getting onto a very slippery slope, where it’s okay to abuse a few people. That would be the logical extension of where you’re headed. I can’t play in that world.
Kelly: If I were dealing with a homeowner along that route, might I not say, “We want to bring this highway through here, and your property is now worth more than it has been for a long time — quite possibly more than it ever will be again”?
Cooper: And yet, you’re arguing that bringing the highway through downtown Birmingham makes that property worth less.
Kelly: But that’s a different type of property.
Cooper: Maybe it is, but I cannot play in that world. That’s a world that does not exist. I don’t have that right, to tell somebody what their property is worth, or what it would be worth, or whether it’s worth more or less. I have to abide by the rules, and the rules say that I cannot locate a road in a minority or low-income area if I have another path. That’s the way it is consistently interpreted by the feds. I’ve told you that from Day One, and four years have gone by, and that rule hasn’t changed.
Kelly: If the city took the lead as you’re suggesting, what would that look like?
Cooper: A funding source has to be located, whether that is city money, straight up — though it’s almost unheard of for a city to actually pay for anything like that — or money that is contributed by people who are genuinely concerned about relocating the highway.
I will point out to you that, in this entire process, nothing’s ever happened on that front. Nothing. All the people who are saying, “Let’s do something different”? None of them have made the effort to raise that money. The city made an effort to get a [federal] TIGER grant, and if you ask them, they will tell you that we supported that. And it was so non-intuitive that we supported it that the federal highway administrator for Alabama was called by Washington and asked if my signature on the support letter was real. He called me, and I said, “Yeah, I signed it, because I support that. I think the city should be able to study it.” So they got $150,000, and they’d asked for a million-five. Tell me what that says.
So how would it look? The same way ALDOT would do it. Write an RFP [a formal Request for Proposals] and select a consultant to lead the study. Once you do that, there are numerous ways that it can be done. You can have more or less involvement of the public. You could have a public advisory board for the study, if you chose to do so. You could have a city council coexistence with that study in some way. You could have the study run by the mayor’s office. Most are run by the mayor’s office, by the way.
Kelly: So the city assembles the funding and picks a consultant. What next?
Cooper: You’d do your study, and then you’d go through eons of public hearings. Every single property owner along that path is going to have the ability to [object to the project or hold out for more money], and every single property owner will be visited by an attorney who is willing to do that for him or her. You’ll fight those one-by-one. It’s a war of attrition, and it’s hard to survive.
Kelly: What you’re saying is that ultimately, it’s a political job, and your job is not political.
Cooper: There would clearly be a political element. Is the glass half full, or is it half empty? With me, it’d be half empty. It might be possible that with the city, it would be half full.
Here’s a question for you: What if I had opened this project by showing up at a public meeting and saying, “I intend to close the interstate. I am going to tear it down. I am going to cut off the connection with the Red Mountain Expressway from the interstate. You will not be able to come to the [Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex] on the interstate. You will not be able to come to downtown Birmingham on the interstate. But you’ll have a nice road one of these days, somewhere north of here”? What would have happened?
Kelly: What do you think would have happened?
Cooper: A riot. The nine people that signed that so-called op-ed the other day? They would have been pounding on my door. [Pounds fist on table] “You can’t do that!” Them and about nine or ten thousand others — ever how many are turning left every morning off the Red Mountain Expressway to go down 59. And all their relatives. And their church members.
But I’m the government. I can’t do it that way. In business, I just might trick you into throwing me into the briar patch I wanted to be in. But I had to show up with what I honestly thought I could do. And I did.
So all of those people stay home and let people like you beat me up.
Kelly: Somebody has to do it, don’t they?
Cooper: Well, if they’d ever thought I was going to just do what you’re advocating now, they’d have shown up and killed me.
Cooper: Do you question that? You can’t question that.
Kelly: I think we’d have to take it on an individual basis…
Cooper: I just wanted to put it in a little context for you.
Cooper: Let me give you a little more context. I’m going to burden you with a bunch of facts today, and you’re going to have to admit you’ve got ‘em.
The next time you write that there’s a trend to relocate interstates out of urban areas, I’m going to say that I told you there hasn’t been one relocated in the whole Southeast. There’s only three in the whole country, and one of them is over 30 years old.
I’ve circularized every state that’s a member of SASHTO — the Southeastern Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials — and I’ve asked, Have you relocated an interstate, or are you rebuilding them where they are? So here’s Texas [reads from document]: “Texas is investing billions in reconstructing and widening existing interstates within the present alignment in the major metro areas.” There’s the Florida answer, there’s the North Carolina answer, there’s Tennessee, there’s Louisiana, there’s Virginia, there’s South Carolina, there’s Georgia — and there is no trend to do that. That’s been a misrepresentation. Somebody said it one time, and some guy wrote it in an article, but it’s a myth.
Kelly: But does having only three examples make moving interstates a bad idea? Could it be that those three communities are ahead of the curve in their thinking about the role of interstates in future transportation planning?
Cooper: That’s an idea, and an idea is a debate. To ignore a trend is to not listen, which is what y’all charge me with. I say that’s unfair. I am not ignoring a trend. Y’all are trying to change a trend, and you’re asking me to lead that effort.
Kelly: Which you are not inclined to do?
Cooper: No, I’m not. I don’t have the money, I don’t have the time. I’ve told you that consistently.
Something has to be done. It’s kind of that simple. Now, when that’s going to be, and whether it’s going to be before [20/59] falls down, I don’t know. But that’s the way it’s going to be at some point, because that’s the only place it can be done in a relevant time period.
Kelly: When did we pass the point of no return on this? If the city had wanted an alternative, when would have been the time to argue that, and to have it be something that would have been achievable within what you call ‘a relevant time period’?
Cooper: If the city wanted an alternative, then at the time they put [the idea of burying the interstate] in their master plan, — about 2005 or ’06 — they should have come to us, or to some engineering firm, and said, “Is it feasible?”
Kelly: Would it have been feasible?
Cooper: In my opinion, no.
Kelly: I’m not talking about burying the interstate, because I understand the problems there. But in terms of moving it…
Cooper: No. Not for us. Now, whether a city with a majority African-American population and a majority African-American government can get away with ignoring the rules, I don’t know. But I’m just dead solid certain that the Alabama Department of Transportation is not going to get permission to build an interstate highway in a minority neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama.
Kelly: Why is it that we care so much about building roads in Alabama? What’s your response to those who say ALDOT should be looking at alternatives to just building roads, and question why that isn’t happening?
Cooper: Just sit there and watch the damn traffic [on 20/59], and tell me if all of those people are just going somewhere they don’t need to go. It’s my job to help them go where they want to go as efficiently and safely as possible.
Kelly: Is this just an illogical argument in your mind, even theoretically, that Birmingham would be better off in the long run if we moved this interstate out of downtown?
Cooper: I don’t think that illogical is the right word. It’s an emotional argument that lacks logical underpinning. It’s an argument that many people emotionally embrace without thinking much about what the consequences are.
Kelly: You’re also fighting a lawsuit against this project. What happens if the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs?
Cooper: When the court rules, we’ll deal with that ruling. I only hope that the other side is prepared to do the same.
Kelly: Are you confident of your legal position?
Cooper: I am confident that we have done this the right way.
Kelly: You’ve referred a couple of times, rather dismissively, to the folks who signed the opinion piece earlier this week. Do you question their sincerity, or do you just consider them to be uninformed?
Cooper: I don’t actually know. They’re awfully late.
I don’t think uninformed is the right word, but they have been in some way not activated. I think all of those people are very capable of understanding that there is a logical process. It has steps. Those steps were carried out — very arduously, very tediously — through the environment that existed. Results occurred, conclusions were reached, and we moved on.
I don’t know if you could make a blanket statement, but I don’t remember any of those people ever attending one of the hearings. I may be wrong.
We, ALDOT, have to live in a regulation-oriented world. We embarked on a very serious effort to work through a regulated process. If you do not participate in that over a very extended period of time — and the public hearings ran from 2012 to 2015 — then I don’t know what you really expect from us.
So yes, my friends who signed that piece the other day are late. I believe that they were obligated, if they were concerned, to have spoken up before now. Some of them were present at meetings — not public hearings, but meetings — where the plans were discussed. I find that frustrating, that now they want to tell the public that I should listen. During the time I was listening, they were silent.
Kelly: There have been some complaints about ALDOT’s notification process for the public hearings on 20/59…
Cooper: I find it disingenuous to argue, as some have, that there was something wrong with the notification process. I don’t know how you lived in this town and didn’t know what was going on, based on what we saw at the actual hearings.
We have a well-established notice mechanism. We wanted people to know, because it became clear to us that a lot of people were interested. So I do question how someone could have been unaware.
Kelly: So the way is cleared and your project goes forward: What does 20/59 look like 10 years from now?
Cooper: I think that’s up to the city, and it’s up to the people who are so convinced that the road needs to be moved. If they find any way at all to fund a study, we will be good to our word, and we will assist that effort. If they are as committed as they believe they are today, and actually follow through and take action on that commitment, then I think the study can be done.
Having said that, I would think that the odds are that a study done within the next 10 years would be turned down. I don’t know that that would extend to a study that is done within the next 20 years.
Cooper: Because as you approach 20 years, you start to approach a projected traffic point where you can perhaps legitimately make the statement, “I don’t have another satisfactory path. I have to go find one.”
Kelly: It’s hard to imagine that you wouldn’t have to at that point, assuming automobile traffic continues to increase.
Cooper: But you have to recognize that when you do that study, you won’t pick a path and study that path. You will delineate alternative paths and go through an extended process of looking at what could work.
In other words, we couldn’t under federal rules say, “Here’s where we want to put the road, let us go prove it’s okay.” First, you’ve got to prove that there’s a need for a road. Then you’ve got to study several alternatives and pick the best one — which is always a very contentious process, because whoever’s in that path always argues, “We’re not the best path, you’re wrong.” You have to prove that, and that takes a long time.
People have legal rights, and we have the legal obligation to comply. What I’m telling you is that, ever how many property owners turn out to be in the path, any one of them can put you through years and years of hoops, proving that there’s no better way to go. Beyond that, the study, if ultimately successful in moving the road, might move it to someplace that none of us contemplate today.
Kelly: It’s fair to say that the number of people who are, at the very least, interested in the future of I-20/59 has increased. Proponents of an alternative to ALDOT’s plan are now organized and becoming visibly active. It’s been a slow buildup, but the energy in favor of moving the interstate is building. What do you say to those people?
Cooper: I truly don’t care if the road gets moved. If the city wants to move the road, I’m not going to stand in the way. But I have to deal with the problem I have now. After four years, I kind of have to shoot. I can’t do this “Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim” interminably. At some point, we have to fire the shot. I believe we are at that point.
Kelly: You say you’ll cooperate if Birmingham decides it wants the interstate moved. Yet in this conversation, you haven’t hesitated to criticize those who you say are stepping up only belatedly to advocate publicly for that. How do you reconcile those things?
Cooper: I’m not resentful of what they want to do, and I’m not trying to prevent it. I’m being brutally honest when I say that if you want to move the road, the last person in the world you want leading that is me. I think that would be fatal to the effort, because it would be projected by anyone who wants to argue with it as, “Here goes ALDOT again.”
Kelly: That just comes with the territory though, doesn’t it? Nobody loves the highway department.
Cooper: It does come with the territory, and it’s important to recognize that. If people really want it done, the city is the logical party to lead that effort. If they would show that kind of initiative, it would make it much easier for others, including me, to find ways to help them. So far, all we’ve had is, “I just don’t like it.”
There are four points that we all need to coalesce around for purposes of a discussion. One is, something does need to be done. Two, we need to acknowledge that the road cannot be relocated within a relevant time period to address the problem we have today. Three, I think we can all agree that the route interchanges need to be rebuilt, without regard to whether you rebuild the road, re-deck the road, or tear it down — and that’s more than two-thirds of the money we’re talking about.
I haven’t gotten to my fourth point yet, but I want to say this: If you look at those drawings [of the plans for reconfiguring the existing interchanges], that actually does position you so that if you are able to relocate the road at some future time, you retain interstate access to downtown Birmingham — including the BJCC — from both ends. Those routes are designed to accomplish that. They also accomplish taking all the commuter traffic out of the route interchanges, which helps the flow of traffic on the main interstate.
So now — and this is my fourth point — I can spend $150 million and re-deck, or I can spend $175 million and rebuild. If I spend the $175 million and rebuild, I can close the road for a year less time. That in itself is worth far more than the $25 million.
Kelly: What does the $25 million “buy”?
Cooper: I can correct the weave situation that we have on both ends by rebuilding and connecting it differently, to new ramps. I can provide a better appearance, and I can make it much quieter. Why would I not spend the $25 million extra to accomplish that?
I would submit to you that, if you will accept my first three points, all of this argument is over $25 million. If you ask yourself if you’d pay $25 million to have it open a year sooner, you clearly would. You don’t even have to discuss the aesthetic benefits, the safety benefits, the noise benefits.
To me, it’s a no-brainer. I’ve not changed my position on that. I have had to change my position on how to do it, because people have pointed out things to me that I didn’t know. That’s what this process is for, and it’s disingenuous for people to say that we don’t listen.
As you know, our first plan closed 31st Street. We changed it. Our second plan involved putting traffic into the BJCC. We changed it. Our third plan has been tweaked and changed in numerous ways to accommodate different people. For people to say that ALDOT doesn’t listen indicates a complete disrespect for the process that other people have made the effort to comply with.
Kelly: Whether or not you agree with them, do you understand some of the objections to the way the process has gone?
Cooper: I know that I have made some people unhappy. I know that some people are never going to like me. [Laughs] There’s some folks in Norwood that I’m never going to get a Christmas card from. It’s not that I didn’t hear what they had to say, but in the end, I had to decide, “I can’t do what you want,” because what they really want is to move the interstate.
Here are my questions for some of those people: Did they live in Norwood when the interstate came through? No. Did they move to Norwood with the interstate there? Yes. Do they want the interstate moved because they think it might enhance their property values, or because they legitimately hate the noise? I don’t know. But to quote the railroad, I was there first. [Laughter]
Kelly: And you’re not going anywhere.
Cooper: I have not moved. I believe what I’m doing is the best thing to do. I do not believe that it’s perfect, or that it will make everyone happy. I accept that I can’t do that. I believe this is the only viable alternative, and that it will result in real progress. It can be done, and we can pay for it, and I don’t believe you’ve got anything else that you can say those things for.
Kelly: And then what? Everybody forgets all the fussing and fighting?
Cooper: Well, I hope not…
Kelly: I mean just in terms of, if you’re successful with the rebuild, and traffic is flowing and other local issues crop up to take people’s time and attention…
Cooper: It is fair to say that our customers have a long history of forgetting whatever their complaint was a week after it’s over. But that gets back to whether these people who are concerned, and are expressing their concern, are actually concerned enough to follow through.
This is an argument that emotion has been allowed to take over. Still, if you feel strongly that the result is wrong, maybe you can ultimately change it. But you have to work at it.
I think that’s what I’ve always said.