Routes for bypassing downtown Birmingham possible, but all come with baggage
Ardell Turner and her husband moved from North Birmingham to a rural hollow near Palmerdale in 1950. Turner was the superintendent of Dixie Bronze Company. "We were both country people," she said.
Now the city, in the form of a Northern Beltline for Birmingham, is coming to her. After years of wrangling, the Alabama Department of Transportation has bought a 50-acre swath through the middle of her 375 acres.
The sound of frogs and bird songs will soon be joined by the sound of earth-moving equipment as the course of what will become a six-lane interstate is cut through the mountains between Alabama 75 and Alabama 79. As Turner understands it, a bridge will tower 80 feet above Self Creek.
"That's the worst part of it, taking my creek," said Turner, now 88.
Over the course of decades, the route of the Northern Beltline shifted father from the city center as suburban development spread. That outward shift keeps down the numbers of people who will lose their homes or property.
But it also diminishes the beltline's effectiveness as a traffic route.
In fact, the Northern Beltline's most significant effects on downtown traffic wouldn't occur until 2048, when the entire route is completed. And even then, the lack of a direct connection to I-20 in the east limits the route's effectiveness.
Meanwhile, Birmingham's downtown interstates are facing increasing pressure.
In 2014, when a connection between Corridor X and Interstate 65 is completed, Birmingham will have two cross-country interstate routes converging in the city, an innovation expected to bring a surge of truck traffic to the already crowded downtown interstate network.
"It is already having a big impact," said Darrell Howard, a planner at the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham. "It is just a lot of traffic. You have got more freight traffic that is coming through."
That has some planners thinking about more direct connections that could provide relief sooner and possibly at a lower cost.
Darrell Howard, deputy director of planning at the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, said several approaches have been looked at over the years. There are some options that could provide significant transportation improvements, but all include downsides that may make them impossible to pursue.
The lines on the map are easy to draw and the benefits easy to dream of. When Corridor X joins I-65, it is expected to be re-designated I-22, connecting Birmingham to Memphis, where a trucker can pick up I-40 for a straight-shot all the way to Los Angeles.
The trip from Birmingham to the busy port at Long Beach, Calif., is shorter through Memphis, 2,042 miles, versus 2,077 via I-20. Memphis already is a major inland shipping hub, with heavy volume of freight moving between Memphis and Atlanta.
So if I-22 continued past I-65 and tied into I-20/59 near the airport, traffic traveling either direction between Atlanta and Memphis could bypass the downtown junction. Additionally, traffic coming south on I-65 and heading east toward Atlanta could take the spur, as could I-20/59 traffic heading north from Birmingham.
Depending on the alignment, that connector would be in the neighborhood of two or three miles long.
The problem is what you encounter in those two or three miles.
"We looked at that years ago," said Don Vaughn, ALDOT's chief engineer. "But you get into a heavy industrial area with contaminated materials and we could not get through there. If we stir it up, we clean it up, and there is too much through there."
Current plans call for ending I-22 at U.S. 31, just beyond its intersection with I-65. If it were to continue in a straight shot, it would soon run into a sprawling industrial complex owned by Walter Energy, which includes a plant that cooks coal into coke, an ingredient in the steel-making process.
Beyond that, the road would have to cut across at least a portion of either the Collegeville or Harriman Park neighborhoods. Both neighborhoods have long suffered the brunt of pollution from surrounding industry. And though such a route possibly could be engineered to provide those communities with a long-sought, quick and easy connection to the rest of the city, it also would bring an increased load of air pollution from automobile traffic.
There might be ways to twist the route through vacated industrial sites, but contamination might be present.
Another seemingly direct line on the map would be to turn the existing U.S. 31 into a northern extension of the Elton B. Stephens Expressway, which would provide many of the same transit benefits as the I-22 extension. However, that project would face an impossibly tight squeeze between the former Carraway Hospital property and beyond that the North Birmingham business district, and it would require taking numerous homes and businesses.
A third option would be to create a downtown bypass by extending Finley Boulevard.
City planners have long considered the possibility of a secondary route that could take truck traffic from Finley's beginning near I-20/59 at Arkadelphia Road and connect it over to Alabama 79 near the airport.
The extension of Finley into Collegeville and beyond is being actively pursued, though the planned project would have a much smaller footprint than would be required for a true highway. The route also would cut across homes and potentially contaminated industrial sites.
Someone coming fresh to the debate might wonder why I-459 couldn't be extended, creating a true beltway loop.
"If we could have tied in right there it would be perfect, but you can't get there," Vaughn said.
ALDOT studied that alignment but it goes through such dense residential neighborhoods that the toll would be far too high. The road would have to take 738 residences, one school, 22 businesses, three apartment complexes, five churches, one park and two cemeteries, Vaughn said.
"You have development. You have historical areas, parks, you can't get through there without wiping that community out, so it pushed us further to the east."
That compares to 485 residences and 35 businesses expected to be taken along the much longer Northern Beltline route.
Still, the project does come at a cost to people and the environment.
On Turner's property, the cool waters of spring-fed Self Creek tumble through a rocky course of small waterfalls on its way toward Turkey Creek.
Self Creek is part of a stream system that is home to three endangered species of fish: the vermilion, the rush and the watercress darter, though surveys didn't detect their presence on her land. The road and resulting development at expected to have an impact on the water quality of those streams.
Turner had considered donating portions of the land along Self Creek as a park.
"It would have made a nice park," she said.