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Ala. Highway Exposes Challenges of Transit Planning

August 10, 2009 at 2:38 PM EDT
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As part of an ongoing series of reports on the nation's infrastructure, special correspondent Rick Karr examines a dispute in Alabama over a nearly 50-year-old federal highway program.
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FAYE CRAWFORD: There was just trees in this area, young trees.

RICK KARR, special correspondent: Faye Crawford’s family has been living on this land just outside of Birmingham for more than a century.

FAYE CRAWFORD: This we have kept as a pasture. And we had cattle for several years. And then, after the boys left, well, we didn’t want cattle any more.

RICK KARR: She moved here more than 70 years ago when she was 10 years old. Her husband, Bernard, joined her just after World War II, but the Crawfords’ time on this land may be coming to an end. Their home will be demolished to make room for an interchange on a new six-lane interstate highway, according to a map prepared by Alabama’s Department of Transportation.

BERNARD CRAWFORD: So here’s the two Northern Beltline lanes, and there’s the house right there.

RICK KARR: So basically where we’re sitting right this second, there would be a highway 15 feet above us.

BERNARD CRAWFORD: Yes, exactly. And this road is going to be moved back. And you see that this is a four-lane road back here. And the on- and off-ramps go on to it.

RICK KARR: So the road that’s up there now is going to be right through your garden, basically?

BERNARD CRAWFORD: Exactly.

RICK KARR: The new highway, known as the Northern Beltline, will connect four interstates that pass through Birmingham with a 52-mile arc through the hills north of town. And the Crawfords don’t think there’s anything they can do to stop it.

FAYE CRAWFORD: We do not feel that we’ve really been heard, and we’ve been told when we talked about the change of plans that this plan was made, and it’s too expensive to change it, and that’s the way it is.

RICK KARR: But members of the Birmingham region’s business community say the area desperately needs the Northern Beltline. They argue that it will help speed the movement of goods through the area, relieve traffic, and most importantly, spur economic development, something they say the area needs especially at a time when the county government is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Phillip Wiedmeyer is head of a pro-highway group affiliated with Birmingham’s Chamber of Commerce.

PHILLIP WIEDMEYER, Coalition for Regional Transportation: The growth opportunities that are presented by the Northern Beltline will actually help create more jobs. We need more jobs, and we need a better tax base for Jefferson County to be able to get out of the crisis that they’re currently in.

RICK KARR: The new jobs and tax base may come from developments that look like this, the malls and office buildings along Birmingham’s existing Southern Beltline. Opponents of the new road say spending billions on big highway projects to spur this kind of development is a thing of the past.

CATHY CRENSHAW, Sloss Real Estate Group: Birmingham had one of the finest streetcar systems in America, connecting all the neighborhoods.

RICK KARR: Cathy Crenshaw is a real estate developer. Her great-grandfather laid the foundation of Birmingham’s economy by building its first steel mill. She’s been redeveloping inner-city neighborhoods and abandoned factories.

CATHY CRENSHAW: We’ve renovated them to be mixed-use, and we have restaurants and shops and galleries. There’s a theater here.

The market demand is for walkable urban living, and you can’t get that on a beltline. You can’t get that; it doesn’t exist. And I think that it’s important that people remember to follow the market, and that’s where the market is now.

A federal concern

RICK KARR: This isn't just a local fight, because the Northern Beltline is a federal project, which means it will be paid for by taxpayers all across the country.

Alabama Republican Senator Richard Shelby added authorization for it to a 2004 bill. He added the road to the Appalachian Development Highway System. That means planning experts never evaluated whether Birmingham needs the road, according to environmental lawyer David Burwell.

DAVID BURWELL, environmental lawyer: There is no benefit-cost analysis in adding new projects to the Appalachian Development Highway System. It's entirely a political process.

RICK KARR: The Appalachian system was authorized by President Lyndon Johnson 45 years ago to overcome poverty and isolation in the mountainous region. Back then, it was planned for nine states with about 2,300 miles of road. Today, including the Northern Beltline, it's expanded to 13 states and more than 3,000 miles.

Burwell calls projects like it that keep going beyond their original intent "zombie highways."

DAVID BURWELL: You have an initially good program for a good purpose, but you end up Christmas-treeing it with all these additional projects, and it just gets out of control. Once you start the program, you never stop it, so it is a zombie highway program.

LARRY LANGFORD, mayor, Birmingham: The Congress and the legislators and the lawmakers must say, "Is it worth it?"

RICK KARR: Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford says the last thing his city needs is another superhighway.

LARRY LANGFORD: We have got enough interstates to kill our inner cities. Yes, we can get from Point A to Point B, but now what we're doing is cycling traffic around because of the grandiose idea we need more interstates. No, we don't need more interstates. We need high-speed public transportation. But we're always spending our money in the wrong places.

Misplaced spending

RICK KARR: Opponents of the beltway say Alabama's literally spending money in the wrong place. They point to the spot where officials plan to start building the highway, not where it would connect to another interstate, but rather in the middle of the countryside.

What the Alabama Department of Transportation thinks Birmingham's drivers need first is a six-lane highway that starts here and runs about two miles over that ridge. There isn't a lot of "there" there, which has prompted some opponents of the beltway to call it Alabama's "road to nowhere."

But at the Alabama Department of Transportation, chief engineer Don Vaughn doesn't see it that way.

D.W. VAUGHN, Alabama Department of Transportation: We can't build all the road at one time. We have to start somewhere. We try to build segments of the road that can be used and have independent utility.

RICK KARR: But according to the environmental impact study, that is the segment of the Northern Beltline that would have the lowest amount of traffic on it, 4,900 cars a day.

D.W. VAUGHN: Still, you have to start somewhere.

RICK KARR: The big winners along that first stretch of highway will be the owners of land near the interchanges, according to environmental lawyer David Burwell.

DAVID BURWELL: That immediately raises the value of that property for a variety of development purposes.

RICK KARR: But American taxpayers will benefit from the beltline, too, according to highway advocate Phillip Wiedmeyer.

PHILLIP WIEDMEYER: It's needed to improve the nation's highway system. This is not going to benefit just Jefferson County or just the state of Alabama. There's a lot of traffic movement through the state of Alabama from other states, and so this will benefit the country by having the Northern Beltline.

RICK KARR: Can you make the case to somebody who's watching us in California or Illinois, why should their tax dollars go into funding this road?

PHILLIP WIEDMEYER: Well, our tax dollars have gone to help fund roads in other parts of this country, and so it's kind of our turn, so to speak.

The challenge of 'zombie highways'

RICK KARR: On average, for every dollar in gas taxes that Alabama sends to Washington, the state gets back $1.12 in subsidies, and that's why it's so hard to kill zombie highway programs like the Appalachian Development System.

DAVID BURWELL: The federal government gives a promise that whatever it takes to complete the program, the federal government will pay 80 percent of that cost. It does not say, "OK, we'll give you the first billion dollars and then it's up to you." It says, "Whatever it costs, we will pay 80 percent."

RICK KARR: Burwell says that encourages states to build as many roads as they can and make them as expensive as possible, in the case of the Northern Beltline, around $3.3 billion.

Congress is considering a new national transportation policy, but Burwell says it's unlikely that lawmakers will try to kill off zombie highway programs.

DAVID BURWELL: Nobody wants to turn off that federal spigot of money.

RICK KARR: Birmingham real estate developer Cathy Crenshaw wishes that that spigot could send money in a different direction.

CATHY CRENSHAW: It would be pretty wonderful if we could shift some of these dollars for larger projects back into cities. The question is, how do we build neighborhoods that we want to live in and we want to walk around in and we want to know people? And that requires investment.

So I would much rather personally see investment in public transportation, which is much less expensive than a new highway system.

RICK KARR: But so far, that's just a dream. While Alabama's spending millions to start acquiring land for the Northern Beltline, efforts to raise more money for transit have failed.

JIM LEHRER: And in his next report, Rick Karr looks more closely at what's behind Birmingham's mass transit problems.