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Ala. Highway Exposes Challenges of Transit Planning

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.

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