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