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August 11th, 2009
America in Gridlock
[VIDEO] Zombie Highways

Blueprint America — with The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer — in a story on how America’s highways are built and funded — often times at the expense of mass-transit development. Correspondent Rick Karr reports from Birmingham, Alabama.

What’s a Zombie Highway?
Rick Karr, Blueprint America correspondent

Let me answer that question with a hypothetical: Let’s pretend that the federal government has a program to help you improve your house or apartment. Lawmakers in Washington promise that for every dollar that you put up for construction, they’ll give you four dollars. It doesn’t matter how expensive the project turns out to be –- you’ll get four bucks in subsidies for every dollar that comes out of your own pocket. Until the project is finished.

In that case, would you ever have an incentive to finish your home improvement project? Or would the project keep shambling forward, like an extra in a George Romero film?

In the most recent Blueprint America piece for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, we report on a highway program that reform advocates say works exactly like the home improvement scenario.

The Appalachian Development Highway System was authorized by President Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960s. The idea was to help nine Appalachian states build about 2,300 miles of highways to improve economic conditions in some of the poorest parts of the country. The federal government agreed to put up four dollars for every dollar the states would spend.

Forty-five years later, the program has expanded to 13 states, and more than 3,000 miles –- and counting. As environmental lawyer and highway-funding reform advocate David Burwell told us, under the system –- known as “cost-to-complete” –- states have an incentive to add more and more highways to the program, build them as expensively as possible –- and never finish them, because doing so would “turn off that federal spigot of money.”

Our case study is one of the newest additions to the Appalachian system: Birmingham, Alabama’s proposed Northern Beltline, a 52-mile stretch of interstate that would wind through the hills north of the city. The cost to taxpayers would be at least $3.327 billion dollars. The State of Alabama would put up its share of $665 million, while taxpayers from the other 49 states and the District of Columbia would cover the lion’s share of the remaining $2.662 billion.

Advocates for the highway say Birmingham needs it to boost economic development. They point to the growth that sprung up along the city’s southern beltline. They also argue that the new road would speed traffic through the region.

Opponents look at the growth along the southern beltline with horror, and argue that it’s exactly the opposite of what Birmingham needs. “We have built enough Interstates to kill our inner cities,” says Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford. “We don’t need more interstates. We’re going to need high speed public transportation. But we’re always spending our money in the wrong places.”

  • Robert Burco

    David, I have never heard you come up with the term “Zombie Highway” before. Even though we have worked on smaller scale highway and transit systems on and off for several decades. Portland, Oregon where I have worked, and observed, for years actually made mayny of these changes beginning with citizen objections to an inner city freeway, The Mount Hood, which was transferred financially into the first leg of a light rail system which provided the model for many others in the West. It was begun with political risk, as were several of the others analyzed in this television coverage. But the three state urbanizing region has had great success, and will open yet another light rail line in September 2009. Local political leaders actually fight to take credit for this transit success. And few anymore complain of the “loss” of Interstate Highway capacity.

    Robert A. Burco, former Director of Transportation, State of Oregon

  • Paul Dorn

    Highways aren’t built to “handle traffic”; they’re built to stimulate development, and only encourage sprawl and congestion. The future is walkable, bike-friendly and transit-oriented neighborhoods. The American auto-dependency habit was propelled by cheap gas and easy credit, which will both be in very short supply in coming decades. We need high-speed rail, transit, sidewalks, and bike paths. Transportation spending should reflect need, not developer greed.

  • Pat Feemster

    How true that transportation spending should reflect need, not greed. Unfortunately, many transportation projects are pushed through by politicians influenced by large corporate donors. Such is the case of the Birmingham Northern Beltline. Elected officials have been influenced by a coalition of large corporate landholders, developers and other businesses that gain from road construction and subsequent development.

  • Byron Comati

    Sustainable spending is the responsible and timely planning approach for the future of US Cities, and you do not have to be Regional planner to recognize that. This is particularly true in transportation decision-making where public transit is both a key economic stimulus in providing access and impacting land value, and all of this at lower initial capital costs than the $3 billion quoted for the belt line. There are the added benefits of congestion relief and less of an
    environmental impact that comes with a mass transit. On a final note, the region already has an interstate “by-pass component” – its called I-459, and it serves the purpose of moving the through-routed vehicular traffic very well without incurring the congestion levels experienced by other medium-sized city regions. Time for the region and the city of Birmingham to think more about what already exists and translate the infrastructure into more liveable communities where the emphasis is on mixed land-use, higher densities and development centered around transit centers, corridors and stations -Light rail, Commuter rail or Bus Rapid Transit. Smart Growth is about encouraging, planning and leveraging for Transit Oriented Development (TOD).

  • Ben Hayley

    Apparently, those who produced this show did not look at the topography of Birmingham and the Greater Metropolitan Area surrounding the city. Birmingham is not the population center of the Birmingham-Hoover GMSA. As the name suggests. Birmingham has mountains and its population center spreads for 45 miles around the city. Most of these areas could not be adequately served by mass transit. Everyone would still need a car and roads to get to the train station. THe northern beltline serves a function of allowin those who live North and West of the city to come to town and work. The beltline also allows commerce and defense transportion to travel through Alabama without the need to add to the congestion of our “Malfunction Junction” downtown. We have had two major steel coil accidents downtown that caused great traffic problems because they occurred downtown. Once the beltway is finalized, through commercial traffic can be required to avoid the downtown area.
    Could the beltway have been done better? Of course it could have been done better, faster and sooner. Will it benefit the nation, Alabama, and Birmingham when it is finished? Of course it will.
    Do we want more people to live in the city center? Yes, that would be great. Birmingham needs revitalization. Bring your child to a dozen of the Birmingham City schools for a day, let me know if you would send them back. Drive around some of our urban neighborhoods after dark or safer, just read the crime statistics in the paper and let me know which urban areas you want your children to play in. I have to fence my air conditioner in in Birmingham. I routinely have to clean graffitti off of my building. I have used needles, beer cans, wine bottles, and liter thrown in front of my building every night. Homeless people use my hose as their shower. Then people wonder why families decide to live outside of the downtown area.

  • Black Independent

    Ben Hayley, I disagree. I work in the field of planning and development and this project is so not needed at this point and time. If it was originally constructed in the 1970s there might have been more of a purpose for the roadway. However, now it is just an overgrown sprawl inducing project that goes through some of the most environmentally sensitive parts of our region. Also the excuse that people use about Birmingham’s terrain can be applied to Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Denver, and the San Francisco bay area. However, all these areas have successfully began to implement a mass transit system for their region. The reason why there is no major movement towards mass transit in Greater Birmingham has all to do with the fact that there is no political will at the state or local level. Many talk about how much it is needed, but most doesn’t care enough to try to implement it.

  • george gilmore

    Same slothful practice occurs in Northern California. No wonder the economy of the country is in the dumper.

  • Brice Marsh

    The Northern Beltway will stimulate economic development for the greater metropolitan area of Birmingham many times more than a domed (doomed)stadium that will only be used a few times a year by less than a capacity crowd with no place to park. Seriously, the influx of business generated by new commerce attracted to the area by new roadways will produce tremendous benefits for all of Birmingham area.

  • Sheila Gray

    Look at who owns the land (who stands to gain the most) if this monstrosity is built. This rural area is home to many folks who work in the city and want to live outside of the city. We do not need all of this development around us. There was a reason why we came out here to live. One developer once told me that I would pay for my peace and quiet. We need to do what we can to prove him wrong. We have an abundance of wildlife that we live with and enjoy. It also sustains us so we do not have to go to the store and buy radiated and steroid-filled meat. This gift will be lost in the name of “Progress”…Spare me! Leave us alone!

  • Eric Jones

    The Crenshaw lady is out of her mind. I would never live in downtown just to be able to shop close to the home and risk getting murdered by a crackhead. The proposed beltline would put an exit 4 miles away from my front door. What do i think? Well my property value will go up, i will spend less money in fuel cost, more shops, more jobs, ect… Folks we are are behind the entire nation and it won’t be long that we cant say thank God for Mississippi anymore they will be saying thank God for Alabama. Build the highway NOW!!!!

  • Nelson Brooke

    Those who want the Northern Beltline so bad in the Birmingham area are those who stand to gain financially from it. Many of these self-serving interests are among the ilk who have participated in white flight from the downtown Birmingham area into the surrounding suburbs. I-459, the southern beltline, served their needs. Pro-beltliners argue I-459’s benefits to Birmingham – what they really mean is its benefits to them personally. I-459 produced an incredible amount of sprawl and the resulting unavoidable congestion on our roadways that comes with it. Some congested roads and intersections associated with I-459 growth: Highway 280 in Mountain Brook, Vestavia, and Inverness, the I-65 junction with I-459, Trussville’s exits on I-459, etc. I-459 pulled growth and prosperity out of Birmingham and instead created separate sprawling cities such as Hoover and Trussville. Sprawl growth is short-sighted and unsustainable. Our natural and cultural heritage are being traded for people’s consumption obsession. Most new developments laughably are named after the natural features they destroy. Our forests and streams are the prey. Instead we should be looking at how to revitalize Birmingham, which has a world-class layout enviable to all urban planners. Pro-beltliners should stop using fear mongering as an excuse for pushing growth outside of Birmingham. Downtown’s crime is not all that bad – it’s the immediate suburbs where most crime occurs. Instead, if pro-beltliners care so much about Birmingham, they should join with those working hard to revitalize what is broken – politics, education, the justice system, transit, and opportunity. A broken system that steals hope from its populace breeds crime. This is the fabric we can weave to make our home a better place. Pro-beltliners: please stop saying the Northern Beltline will reduce congestion on Birmingham’s highways. Projected use statistics are low and there are no effectively enforced rules in place to divert commercial traffic around the city. I-459 didn’t fix that problem, why will an even longer Northern Beltline be the answer? This is a smokescreen for the real intention of producing more of the same sprawl. Imagine what $3.5 Billion could do if it were invested in the interests of all living in the greater Birmingham area? Thank you Blueprint America for being a progressive voice! Continuing with the status quo is what keeps Alabama so far behind the progress being made elsewhere in the United States. There are many here who see the light – we’re just trying to coerce the blinders off our “leaders.”

  • Robert Crider

    The Northern Beltway is just one of several steps needed to move Birmingham and Alabama forward. Roads and transportation are essential for the well being of a community. We don’t want to stay where we are and leave our children with what will be considered pig trails to get to work. Backwardness should not be our goal.

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