By Sarah Kuper
Downtown Birmingham has many prominent features and landmarks.
The recently renovated Lyric Fine Arts Theatre, the Birmingham Museum of Art and the McWane Science Center are just a few attractions drawing people in.
But there is one feature many area business leaders find worrisome: the Interstate 20/59 corridor cutting through downtown.
The Alabama Department of Transportation is moving forward with plans to reconfigure and widen the interstate. Civic leaders believe the plan will have long-term, detrimental effects on the city.
The plans include widening portions of the highway from six lanes to 10 lanes and rearranging access ramps and exits.
The widened roadway would cut closer to the Sheraton and Westin hotels, the newly developed Uptown Entertainment District and other downtown attractions.
It may also affect the success of proposed developments such as a stadium next to the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex.
F. Dixon Brooke Jr., former president and CEO of EBSCO, and nearly a dozen other business and community leaders are asking ALDOT to look at alternatives.
Brooke said the current layout of the interstate has hurt Birmingham’s revitalization.
“It has proven to be dividing the city for years. It has limited quality of life and the ability to revitalize,” Brooke said.
A Birmingham non-profit was born in opposition to ALDOT’s plans.
Move I-20/59 Inc. is led by civic activist Darrell O’Quinn.
O’Quinn, president of the Crestwood North Neighborhood Association, grew interested in the issue when ALDOT presented its initial plans in 2013.
“I went to the few community meetings ALDOT held and there were a lot of people with concerns. It seemed like they had no intention of entertaining comments,” O’Quinn said.
He said ALDOT is not considering Birmingham’s potential for economic growth.
“It seems their main objective is just to get people through the city,” he said.
Move I-20/59 filed a lawsuit against ALDOT contending it had not adequately considered environmental issues and asking that it consider economic issues as well.
On Jan. 19, the Federal Highway Administration and ALDOT responded by denying all claims.
Opponents have asked for an injunction to stop work on the project.
Meanwhile, Brooke is circulating a petition among local business and community heavyweights asking Mayor William Bell to take action.
“Leaders of all stripes have to have a real conversation. The mayor has the city’s interest at heart and we are encouraging him to call time out,” Brooke said.
If opponents had their way, ALDOT would revert to the early plan to redeck and repair the existing road to buy time until a larger vision develops.
“We have an influx of millennials into the city. Let’s pause and think what would advance Birmingham into the future,” Brooke said.
O’Quinn said he would be pleased if he felt ALDOT was hearing opponents’ concerns.
“Let’s have a reasonable level of confidence that they aren’t screwing things up because we will be living with it for the next 50 years,” O’Quinn said.
O’Quinn emphasized that not just downtown Birmingham will be affected by the project. Over the Mountain neighborhoods could see more traffic, pollution and noise, he said.
“We hired our own transportation engineer and he found this would actually make traffic worse on I-65,” O’Quinn said.
Brook and O’Quinn said a reconfiguration of the entire I-20/59 viaduct could open up Birmingham’s north side to revitalization much as the city has seen surrounding Railroad Park and Legions Field.
Though plans are drawn and ALDOT is moving forward, work on the elevated bridges through the Central Business District won’t begin until 2018.
O’Quinn said there is still time to push for change.
Brooke said he is just asking that no alternative is overlooked.
“I need ALDOT to exhibit genuine interest in collaborating and consider alternatives. They feel they’ve looked at all options because they think this is the best one, but I’m not convinced. We want an open, honest collaborative view.”
He said he isn’t looking for a fight, he is just asking for transparency.
“At the end of the day we may look at everything and see there just isn’t a better way to do it,” Brooke said.