Northern Beltline


Work on Northern Beltline shows progress in Palmerdale

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When the Northern Beltline is finished, it'll span 52 miles and connect Birmingham's eastern suburbs with its western suburbs, by way of its northern suburbs. At the moment, most of it is just lines on paper.

Between Highway 75 and Highway 79 in the Palmerdale area, though, it's starting to look like a highway might soon find its way through the hills and valleys and trees.

The work has been long and difficult -- the project is 19 months in -- but some signs of progress are visible back off between the highways.

At one point not far from Highway 75, crews have cut into the hillside to make way for the road, leaving an exposed wall about 150 feet up in four tiers. At another point, they've made similar cuts, making high walls of rock, dirt and concrete, but still have a few dozen yards more to cut to get it to road grade.

The current project is expected to cost $46 million under the direction of Wright Brothers Construction Co. of Tennessee. The grading work -- just getting the landscape to the point where a road can be built on it -- should be done next fall.

In total, crews will move about 2.5 million cubic yards of dirt, rock and other materials for this project, according to Gary Smith, the Birmingham area construction engineer for the Alabama Department of Transportation. It's moved by blasting, by excavators that can pick up as much as nine cubic yards at a time in shovels big enough for a half dozen adults to stand in. It's hauled in dump trucks as tall as four construction workers that can carry 50 cubic yards at a time.

"As you open the ground up you may find solid rock and you may find soil or something in between," Smith said.

The hills aren't the only obstacles crews have faced in cutting the landscape into a highway. They've had to navigate around Self Creek. At the point where the beltline will intersect Highway 79, crews have built the area up to about 35 feet above where the creek sits. The roadway of what will be an expanded Highway 79 -- it's currently two lanes but will be four lanes at the interchange -- will sit atop a culvert and the 21 feet of rock and materials on top of it.

Smith said crews have been careful with construction around the creek.

"We've done a lot to stabilize the area and preserve Self Creek," he said.

That includes plenty of money going toward erosion control. About 10 percent of the $46 million project is focused on erosion control.

Environmental concerns are another reason ALDOT is planning to build bridges connecting the cutaway hillsides, rather than putting culverts over creeks and filling the valleys up. A 1,000-foot bridge will connect the first cutaway hillside with Highway 75, and an 1,800-foot bridge will carry the highway to the next hillside.

Crews have also had to work around an archaeological site nearby.

The work is the first segment of the Northern Beltline, which will meet I-20/59 in Bessemer and I-59 in Trussville. The whole project is expected to cost about $5.4 billion over about 35 years.

"This is the first project of many to come," Smith said.

He said he expects the terrain to be a little bit easier to work with in the western areas of the Beltline.

via AL.COM

Deputy U.S. Transportation Secretary Victor Mendez made an out-of-the-spotlight visit to the Birmingham area Friday, touring transportation projects with Mayor William Bell and meeting with local leaders.

Mendez began his visit in a closed-door roundtable discussion Friday morning with the African American Mayors Association at the Westin Hotel in downtown Birmingham.

The discussion preceded the 2015 Small Business Transportation Summit, also at the hotel.

The deputy secretary's visit went largely unannounced. There weren't any statements released and calls to department headquarters in Washington, D.C., weren't returned as of Friday afternoon.

Mendez was accompanied by officials with the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration.

"Today was more about the progress we've made and the platform for continued projects," said Chuck Faush, Bell's chief of staff.

Among the sites he visited was the Northern Beltline -- under construction near Pinson -- and the site for the downtown intermodal facility.

The intermodal facility will replace the old MAX Central Station and existing Amtrak train platform at Morris Avenue and 18th Street North. The city of Birmingham is building the new center and will turn over its operation to the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority when finished.

The facility will unite operations for MAX buses, Greyhound intercity buses and Amtrak under one roof.

"The deputy secretary expressed a lot of excitement and was very pleased with a lot of the progress in the city," Faush said.

Mendez also met with area business leaders and CEOs at the Birmingham Business Alliance during his visit.

Mendez has visited the Birmingham area on other occasions, previously as Federal Highway Administrator.

He became the deputy transportation secretary in 2014.

via AL.COM

PINSON, Alabama -- Construction of the first segment of the Northern Beltline continues Wednesday October 22, 2014. Construction has progressed over two additional hills closer to Hwy. 79.

The first phase will run between Hwy. 75 and Hwy. 79 in northeast Jefferson County. Heavy equipment including bulldozers, trackhoes and heavy dump trucks are moving dirt and grading an area near where the interchange will be.

Some of the permanent road bed is close to final grade near Hwy. 75 and entrance and exit ramps are beginning to take shape.

By the fall of 2016, the grade and drain phase of the first segment of the project will be complete. Paving and bridge work will be done later.

The length of the first segment is 1.34 miles of the 52 mile project that will cost $5.4 billion over 35 years.

Here is an earlier story with photo gallery to show progress.


PINSON, Alabama -- Construction continues on the Northern Beltline highway project. The first phase will run between Hwy. 75 and Hwy. 79 in northeast Jefferson County.

Heavy equipment including bulldozers, trackhoes and heavy dump trucks are moving dirt and grading an area near where the interchange will be. Construction of a temporary bridge over Self Creek in progressing and will soon allow heavy equipment to move over the creek more easily.

Construction continues on the Northern Beltline highway project. The first phase will run between Hwy. 75 and Hwy. 79 in northeast Jefferson County. Heavy equipment including bulldozers, trackhoes and heavy dump trucks are moving dirt and grading an area near where the interchange will be.

Some of the permanent road bed is close to final grade near Hwy. 75 and entrance and exit ramps are beginning to take shape.

Today some debris clean-up from blasting yesterday was taking place.


PINSON, Alabama -- Construction continues on the Northern Beltline highway project. The first phase will run between Hwy. 75 and Hwy. 79 in northeast Jefferson County.

Heavy equipment including bulldozers, trackhoes and heavy dump trucks are moving dirt and grading an area near where the interchange will be. Two construction entrances to Hwy 75 have been added so equipment can enter the site.

Wright Brothers Construction Co. from Tennessee is doing the work on the $46 million segment that stretches 1.34 miles.

Blasting has been done to remove part of a hill and concrete is being blown on retaining walls. The hill about a 1/4 mile north of Hwy. 75 will be terraced.

The first temporary bridge over Self Creek is being built. A series of silt fences and other devices is keeping Self Creek clear. I saw dozens of fish swimming in the creek during my visit with Linda Crockett of ALDOT. Check out the photo gallery to see views of the creek.

The permanent bridge structure will rise 80 feet about Self Creek.


PINSON, Alabama -- Construction continues on the Northern Beltline highway project. The first phrase will run between Hwy. 75 and Hwy. 79 in northeast Jefferson County.

Heavy equipment including bulldozers, trackhoes and heavy dump trucks are moving dirt and grading an area near where the interchange will be. Two construction entrances to Hwy 75 have been added so equipment can enter the site.

Wright Brothers Construction Co. from Tennessee is doing the work on the $46 million segment that stretches 1.34 miles. Linda Crockett with ALDOT said that some blasting will take place at the site in a couple weeks.

By the fall of 2016, Alabama Department of Transportation officials say the new highway's first segment, complete with interchanges linking Alabama 75 and Alabama 79, will be complete.

See more stories and photos about the northern Beltline here.


PALMERDALE, Alabama -- Calling it a triumph over obstacles that have delayed the project for decades, Gov. Robert Bentley, U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus headlined a chorus of regional elected officials and business leaders Monday hailing construction of the first segment of the Northern Beltline.

Actual construction on the new interstate began in February when crews began clearing land and moving dirt to build the first 1.3-mile segment to connect Alabama 75 and Alabama 79 for $46 million.

The planned 52-mile corridor will ring the northern rim of metro Birmingham and link Interstate 20/59 in Bessemer with Interstate 59 near Argo.

Estimates show the entire corridor will take about 30 years to complete. The Coalition for Regional Transportation, which organized Monday's groundbreaking, listed the estimated cost as $3 billion.

A figure logged for the project in Federal Highway Administration records calls for construction costs ranging up to $5.4 billion.

With the distant hum of work vehicles in the background, leaders on Monday championed that the highway was a long-considered idea whose time has come.

Bentley campaigned during his first run for governor that construction would begin on the Northern Beltline before the end of his first term.

Citing statistics from a University of Alabama economic impact study calling for 21,000 permanent jobs resulting from the highway, Bentley said the highway's start opens northern Jefferson County to development.

"The Northern Beltline will certainly do that," Bentley said. "It will open up an area of the state that then will allow us to have more companies come in."

Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills, said in addition to business opportunity, connecting interstates 20/59, 22, 65 and 59 north of Birmingham means reduced congestion, saved time for commuters and access to jobs so people can afford health care.

Bachus pointed to Interstate 459's impact south of the city and how it has connected Bessemer and Trussville

"They deserve that same opportunity that 459 has given these other cities," Bachus said.

The Northern Beltline was first programmed into the National Highway System in 1993. It received a dedicated funding stream from the Appalachian Highway Development System in 1995, Bachus said.

That dedicated funding -- for I-22 (Corridor X), Alabama 24 (Corridor V) and the Northern Beltline in Alabama -- ended in 2012 when a new transportation bill took effect. Projects approved in the Appalachian system prior to 2022 are eligible for no-match federal dollars, Alabama Department of Transportation officials have said.

In project information distributed Monday by the Coalition for Regional Transportation, officials said the Beltline is 100 percent federally funded for the next 10 years and won't require any state funding.

The project survived a "last-ditch effort" by other states to divert funding in April 2013, Bachus said Monday.

Bachus said the new highway is a good example of the federal government helping communities with a transportation project too massive to handle on their own.

"A great country ought to have a great infrastructure," Bachus said. "That's one of the things we can do for people."

Northern Beltline construction is under way despite an ongoing legal challenge.

Two lawsuits filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper -- the first alleging that ALDOT did not perform a proper environmental assessment and the second challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers construction permit -- were merged in 2013.

The merged lawsuit continues in federal court in Montgomery. U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins in January denied the group's request for a preliminary injunction to block construction while the case proceeds.

The groups say environmental impacts to the Black Warrior and Cahaba river basins, along with the project's cost and an estimate it will have minimal traffic congestion impacts are reasons the roadway shouldn't be built.

"To continue investing in an unnecessary road that will cross and permanently alter streams and wetlands in 125 places, impacting two major sources of local drinking water, is nothing to celebrate," Nelson Brooke, with Black Warrior Riverkeeper, said in a statement.

"Today's event is merely a distraction from the fact that the Northern Beltline remains a wasteful and destructive diversion from the Birmingham area's pressing transportation needs, such as the I-59/20 upgrade and major traffic issues on I-65 and Highway 280," Brooke continued.

The Coalition for Regional Transportation maintains the boost from the highway means a $2 billion post-construction economic impact and millions in tax revenue annually for local governments in the future.


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- A federal judge Friday afternoon denied a request for a preliminary injunction that would block construction of the Northern Beltline, court documents show.

The planned 50-mile corridor will link Interstate 459 in Bessemer with Interstate 59 in northeastern Jefferson County.

The estimated cost for the project -- expected to take up to 35 years to complete -- is more than $5.4 billion. That price tag, and questions of negative environmental impacts have fueled opposition to the highway.

Alabama Department of Transportation Director John Cooper said the department continues to prepare for construction.

Sarah Stokes, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents Black Warrior Riverkeeper, said the group is reviewing the judge's order and considering options.

ALDOT officials have said that as early as February they plan to begin construction of the first 1.8-mile segment connecting Alabama 75 and Alabama 79 near Pinson.

Two lawsuits were filed against the project. In the first, Black Warrior Riverkeeper sought to require the ALDOT to perform an updated environmental impact study for the entire corridor.

In October, the organization filed a second suit claiming the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not follow the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when the agency issued a permit for building the first segment in Pinson.

Those lawsuits were consolidated and remain in progress.

In his order, U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins addressed several points.

Watkins wrote that while Black Warrior Riverkeeper's arguments focused on environmental harm caused by the entire project, the group's claims do not specifically address the area that will be impacted by construction of the segment for which the permit was issued.

Regarding NEPA compliance, Watkins wrote that ALDOT is required to have a plan to minimize environmental impacts as a condition of getting a permit.

The order also states that Black Warrior Riverkeeper argued that one can presume environmental harm if someone doesn't comply with NEPA, but failed to prove that ALDOT and the Corps of Engineers haven't complied.

Watkins wrote that an injunction is an "extraordinary" step that isn't in the public interest because ALDOT has spent money preparing for construction and the project will promote jobs and economic stability.

"Delaying construction would have significant financial impacts on (the) Defendants and the public treasury, especially if the bid process has to be repeated," Watkins wrote.

ALDOT opened bids in November for the first 1.8 miles of the planned highway. Wright Brothers Construction Co., of Charleston, Tenn., was the apparent low bidder, submitting a bid of about $46 million.

Next steps

Cooper praised the order as validation of ALDOT's efforts.

"We're pleased that the judge reached a decision to deny the injunction and we are pleased that we'll be able to proceed, moving forward to the commencement of construction," Cooper said Friday evening.

ALDOT has presented a final contract to Wright Construction. The company has accepted it.

The contract is in the last stages of review before being sent for Gov. Robert Bentley's signature.

Cooper said money is available for the first segment. Beyond that, funding will have to be sought whether it's federal or state money, he said.

"The fact that I don't know where the money is going to come from does not mean it is not a terribly needed project," Cooper said.

"This is a really important project," he continued. "The governor's commitment was that we were going to get this project under way in his first term and it looks like we're going to do that."

Cooper said the full amount is not there, but neither was all the money available when Alabama's interstate system was first built.

What remains unknown is whether Black Warrior Riverkeeper and SELC will appeal the order. That decision had not been made as of Friday night and Stokes said SELC is looking at possible next steps.

The Coalition for Regional Transportation, a group which formed in support of the new interstate, cheered the judge's order.

"This very strong order of the federal court reflects exactly what we have been saying about the need for the Northern Beltline for the past several years -- that it is a necessary and justifiable transportation project that will tremendously benefit the people of this area," said Renee Carter, the coalition's executive director. "We are both very pleased and gratified by the court's order."

Pat Feemster of the citizens group SOURCE -- Save Our Unique River, Communities and Environment -- blasted the decision as "disappointing" and "superficially based ... rather than a decision based upon federally mandated environmental regulations."

"Allowing construction to begin on a 1.8-mile segment of a 52-mile highway with a pending lawsuit and no available funding for additional construction is contrary to his reasoning," Feemster continued. "Furthermore, public interest would be best served by enforcing laws enacted for protection of citizens' personal property rights, quality of life and environmental and cultural resources."

Construction on the first segment could begin in the next 30 to 45 days, Cooper said.

via AL.COM

People often ask me why we need the Northern Beltline. The answer is simple. Today, any problem that develops on Birmingham's current interstate system can quickly deteriorate into traffic gridlock.

During the early hours Friday, Oct. 25, a hole developed in the pavement at the south end of the I-20/59 bridges in front of the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center in downtown Birmingham. This was the Friday before the Magic City Classic at Legion Field and the Alabama-Tennessee football game in Tuscaloosa. With the additional traffic generated by these events, this was a bad time to work on Birmingham's interstates. But, the road was unsafe and the bridge had to be fixed. With my approval, ALDOT Third Division Engineer Brian Davis decided to close several lanes of the interstate for about six hours to make repairs. It was a decision we knew would cause additional congestion during an extremely busy travel day.

I relate this to illustrate our need for the Northern Beltline. The lack of a Northern Beltline leaves east-west travelers who pass through Birmingham no choice but to use the I-20/59 corridor through downtown. This pass-through traffic greatly magnifies problems when they occur.

Look at what happened when I-20 East was recently closed for rebuilding. During peak travel periods, traffic from downtown Birmingham to the interchange between I-20/59 and I-459 was gridlocked. I know this because I was stuck there with you. And, as we inched along together, I noticed the line in front of me was dominated by large trucks. Knowing how information travels quickly among truckers, I couldn't help but wonder why they were in this situation. Why did they not go another route?

Again, the answer is simple: there is no other route.

The Birmingham area is served by four interstate highways - 65, 22, 20 and 59. I can identify only a few other cities in the United States that are served by this many interstates. I'm sure most of us would consider this an advantage for Birmingham. We are directly connected by the interstate system to Atlanta, Chattanooga, Nashville, Memphis, Jackson, New Orleans and Mobile. By the connections that are available in those cities, we are only a few hours away from any destination in the southern United States. Birmingham is truly the geographic hub of the Southeast.

However, while Birmingham's location serves us well in many respects, it imposes a huge burden on our transportation infrastructure. It also mandates that we plan and develop a transportation network that will accommodate the traffic.

While the traffic traveling through the Birmingham area is significant, it is made even more demanding by the presence of so many trucks. Of the traffic on I-20 at the Georgia state line, 46 percent is trucks. The normal truck presence on our interstates is less than 20 percent. A large portion of the truck traffic today has no choice but to travel through downtown Birmingham.

One reason for this is the pending completion of I-22, including the interchange with I-65. Another is we have become the truckers' preferred route between Memphis and Atlanta.

Without a direct Memphis to Atlanta interstate route through north Alabama, trucks from Memphis to Atlanta use I-22 and pass through Birmingham, because the terrain is better and approximately 90 miles shorter than the alternative route across Tennessee through Nashville and Chattanooga.

Approximately 160,000 vehicles travel I-20/59 through the Birmingham's Central Business District each day. The main part of that route is composed of approximately 6,600 feet of elevated bridge structures that run from the route interchange between I-20/59 and I-65 to the route interchange between I-20/59 and the Red Mountain Expressway. The bridges are reaching the end of their useful life and must be replaced. This will require the interstate system in this area to be closed while the work is performed.

Therefore, alternative routes must be found for this traffic. Some of the traffic may choose to use I-459. But that route is not feasible for much of the traffic. Some will find another route - for example, truckers traveling from Memphis to Atlanta may revert to the route through Nashville and Chattanooga. Other traffic will find local alternatives which will result in increased traffic loads to those road and streets. In any case, the imposition on those who use the I-20/59 corridor through the area will be immense.

From the standpoint of transportation convenience and cost, a Northern Beltline would solve or mitigate many of these problems in the long-range future. It would provide for much more convenient, efficient and timely traffic flow through and around the Birmingham area and significantly decrease the frequency and duration of the disruptions caused by daily traffic gridlock and the emergency situations described above.

We can no longer hide our heads in the sand and ignore the need for the Northern Beltline. Traffic along the downtown Birmingham I-20/59 corridor is expected to increase to over 230,000 vehicles per day by 2035. So, if you think it's bad now, just wait!

John Cooper is Transportation Director of the Alabama Department of Transportation

via AL.COM

ALDOT takes nominations for Northern Beltline community panel

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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- The Alabama Department of Transportation is accepting nominations for a community relations panel the department has formed for the Northern Beltline project.

Bids are scheduled to be opened this Friday on the first 1.3-mile segment of the planned 52-mile corridor linking Interstate 459 in Bessemer with Interstate 59 in northeastern Jefferson County.

The estimated cost for the entire 30- to 35-year project is $5.45 billion, or about $104.7 million per mile.

The first segment will link Alabama 75 and Alabama 79 near Pinson, with construction scheduled to begin in early 2014.

The project is the subject of two lawsuits. The most recent one was filed in October challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' permit for the first segment.

Opponents of the overall project question whether the cost is a wise use of transportation resources and cite harmful environmental impacts. ALDOT officials and proponents have called the project a necessity for mobility and economic development.

The community outreach group will help keep residents informed of the project's progress, according to ALDOT.

Panel members will meet with the department, ask questions and relay that information to the community.

The deadline to nominate someone for a position on the outreach panel is Dec. 6. Nomination forms are available at ALDOT's website for the project,

via AL.COM