Friday, October 7, 2011

Tightening the Beltway

“Highway projects generally contribute to economic development but do not automatically generate or guarantee such growth.” This statement is taken directly from the economic impact study commissioned by the pro-Northern Beltline Coalition for Regional Transportation (CRT). It is an ironic place to find an affirmation for our fight against this $4.7 billion highway project.

At a time when many cities are spending money to retrofit inefficient, sprawling settlement patterns, the Northern Beltline will create more of the same, all in the name of supposed “economic development.” Worse yet, neither the Alabama Department of Transportation nor the CRT has performed necessary studies to ensure that this massive investment is a good one. They have never examined alternatives that could potentially deliver greater growth and more jobs, with fewer negatives and for less cost. Why?

Perhaps it is because we live in a 1950s time warp where highway projects are still considered wise investments and where what is good for big business is good for us all. Prominent and influential members of the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA) who stand to directly benefit—large landowners, utilities, developers, builders and others—have pushed for the Beltline for years. They even admit that it is their number one legislative priority.

Atlanta tabled a similar economic development project called the Northern Arc. Detractors argued that the project would promote unsustainable development and congestion, further perpetuating the urban sprawl and traffic that are Atlanta’s hallmark. They pushed instead for more compact, mixed use and transit-oriented development as well as for the adoption of “smart growth” strategies. And who were these quixotic environmentalists? A coalition of Atlanta-based corporate, utility and real estate interests.

Meanwhile, here in Birmingham, our corporate elites pursue a more archaic course. Stung by the effectiveness of initial grassroots opposition, they ponied up money to start the CRT, whose only job is to shill for the Beltline. And they commissioned a very limited economic impact study which focused narrowly on questions that would support their pro-Beltline bias instead of asking fair questions about the project’s long term pros and cons.

We too, want jobs and a prosperous, thriving Birmingham. But we also believe in good stewardship, not just of the environment but also of possible investments in the region. The Beltline is bad on both counts.

Eva Dillard
Staff Attorney
Black Warrior Riverkeeper

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