The future of Interstate 20/59 through downtown Birmingham will be the topic of a Monday afternoon meeting between U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Congresswoman Terri Sewell and a delegation of top Birmingham businessmen and community leaders. The meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Longworth House Building in Washington.
The Birmingham delegation was to have been led by Birmingham Mayor William Bell, but Weld learned Sunday night that Bell was hospitalized Sunday afternoon and will not make the trip. The city’s public information officer, April Odom, confirmed this morning that the mayor “is recovering from knee surgery after aggravating an existing injury” while attending the Regions Tradition golf tournament at Greystone Golf & Country Club in suburban Shelby County. Birmingham City Councilor William Parker, who was already in Washington on other city business, will represent the city at the meeting.
The meeting with Foxx, including Bell’s participation, was coordinated by Move 20/59, the nonprofit organization launched late last year by a group of influential private donors. Move 20/59 advocates alternatives to the Alabama Department of Transportation’s plans to expand the highway through downtown. Three of Move 20/59’s supporters, retired EBSCO Industries CEO Dixon Brooke, Harbert Management Corporation Executive Vice President William W. Brooke and Temple Tutwiler, president of Tutwiler Investments, are part of the nine-member delegation traveling to Washington.
“Our group has been talking with Mayor Bell and others and [has] been seeking an opportunity to meet with Secretary Foxx and explain the situation in Birmingham,” Dixon Brooke told Weld this morning, prior to the Birmingham delegation’s departure. “We feel that this discussion fits with his ‘Smart Cities’ program and his overall vision for transportation policy in the 21st century.”
“The [Smart Cities] program is about reconnecting urban neighborhoods that have been affected by divisive highways,” Brooke added. “It also fits with the revival that’s going on in our downtown area, and we feel that Secretary Foxx will take interest in our efforts to try to correct social injustices, generate additional economic development opportunities and create a more livable city.
“We feel that what we have to say may resonate.”
Along with Parker, Tutwiler and the Brookes, the Birmingham delegation includes Lawrence Conaway, a pastor at Guiding Light Baptist Church in Birmingham and chair of the Birmingham Education Foundation; Scott Douglas, executive director of the nonprofit Greater Birmingham Ministries; Miles College President George French; McWane Inc. Chairman Phillip McWane; and Larry Thornton, president of Thornton Enterprises. The group will depart Birmingham this morning aboard a corporate jet provided by McWane, sources said.
In the meeting the group will tell Foxx of growing community support for finding an alternative to ALDOT’s plan to rebuild 20/59 in its current location. They also plan to ask the transportation secretary to order a federal review of ALDOT’s compliance with environmental requirements — including submission of a comprehensive environmental impact study — and, in the event that the review is unsatisfactory, to ask the Federal Highway Administration to compel ALDOT to fulfill all requirements. They will also ask Foxx to designate a direct point of contact in his office to coordinate the review and “keep the citizens of Birmingham posted” on its progress.
Calls for an alternative to ALDOT’s plan for 20/59 began as far back as 2013. A lawsuit to halt the project on environmental grounds was filed last year, and is still in progress. Weld has followed the process closely for more than three years, publishing numerous news stories about it as well as frequent editorials critical of ALDOT’s process and calling for the removal of the highway from downtown.
Currently 20/59 through downtown is undergoing repairs, which will dovetail into the plan to begin the expansion later this year. ALDOT director John Cooper has consistently reiterated his agency’s intent to move forward with the project as planned, and told Weld in February that he is “dead solid certain” that federal policy will not permit ALDOT to take the lead on relocating the highway. But Cooper has also stated on several occasions his willingness to commit funds to study moving the interstate in the future, though he speculated that it would be more than a decade before a study could be completed and work to move the highway would begin in earnest.
“I am confident we have done this the right way,” Cooper said in that in-depth interview with Weld. “If [the city, Move 20/59 and other proponents of an alternative] 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.”
The mayor’s agreement to join the delegation meeting with Foxx is significant. He has been reticent to take a leadership role in calling for alternatives to the ALDOT plan, for fear of the impact it could have on the agency’s commitment to other critical highway projects in Birmingham. Mayoral spokesperson Odom said that it’s possible that Bell could participate in today’s meeting by phone.
Update 5/23/16 7:40 p.m.: Weld learned this evening that Mayor William Bell participated in the meeting via telephone. We will provide updates to this developing story as they become available.