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.