• The Northern Beltline, Urban Sprawl And You.

    If you ever looked at a road map of the Birmingham metro area, you'll notice instead of having a full loop like all other respectable cities, Birmingham has a V-shaped bypass serving the southern "Over The Mountain" portions of the city and outlying areas. This is Interstate 459, built in 1984 to spare east- and west-bound travelers from 1-65 the indignity of traveling through Birmingham, and more importantly, the much-maligned I-65/I-20/I-59 interchange known as "Malfunction Junction." It's one of the few roadways in the U.S. where you end up traveling on the wrong side of the road on purpose. And it eats trucks, tankers specifically.

    After I-459 was built, bupkis. The fine minds at ALDOT thought about finishing up the loop, and promptly fell asleep for the next 20 years or so. This is what ALDOT does. They think up half-baked and half-assed solutions, and then they sleep on them for about 20 to 30 years. Eventually, they'll wake up and get around to building the damn thing, which usually takes anywhere from a speedy 4 to 5 years or perhaps another 10 to 15. Either way, you get a highway that's at least 5 to 10 years behind the curve, a question that should have been answered 5 to 10 years ago. It took them about 30 years to realize Huntsville needed an interstate highway and that Decatur wasn't gonna break past 65,000 in population anytime soon.

    Needless to say, I-459's been a boon to the once-rural but now thoroughly suburban areas of southeast Jefferson County and northwest Shelby County, and not so much for the areas around Bessemer and McCalla. The main issue is how I-459, like most urban and suburban loops, enabled urban sprawl along and beyond its boundaries.

    Now let's look at northern and northwestern Jefferson County. It's still largely rural as all get out, thanks to the vast majority of suburban development happening towards the southeast. When it comes to trendy suburbia, west Jefferson County gets no love. Well, ALDOT's woken up from yet another long nap to kick-start construction of the Northern Beltline.

    Courtesy of the Southern Environmental Law Center

    And here it is, the Northern Beltline, a.k.a I-422. Approximately 52 miles and $4.7 billion dollars of blacktop boondoggle. That comes out to approximately $90 million per mile. At this point, you'd think the road was gonna be paved with solid gold. Also note the hilariously wide arc of the overall route, staying well outside of Birmingham city limits for the most part, passing through a collection of stereotypical small towns and parcels of land owned by USS Real Estate, Jim Walter Resources and several other local interests. Little wonder about the price tag.

    The roadway technically begins where I-459 ends, trudging its way through miles of backwoods Alabama landscape and underfed small towns, eventually connecting with I-22 at Graysville, a sleepy small town that, once upon a time, had exactly one traffic light. After passing through Mayberry, the Northern Beltline suddenly grows another branch, headed southwest towards Graysville's larger speed trap cousin, Adamsville. From there, the Beltline continues a northern arc across I-65, Pinson, Centerpoint and a number of other small cities until it finally ends....not at I-459 in Roebuck. Nope, instead it terminates somewhere near the otherwise insignificant city of Argo, about 10 miles away from I-459. And there's some talk about the Beltline extending further into St. Clair County so it meets with I-20. No wonder people are scared it's gonna grow into an "out-of-control" spiral.

    The only benefit to the Beltline is the ability to direct truck traffic around the city and away from the aforementioned Malfunction Junction. And it remains seen if law enforcement and ALDOT will have the attention span and the testicular fortitude to enforce a ban on through traffic for trucks.

    So, will building start at I-459? Nope. It's gonna start somewhere around here (skip to 5:55). In the middle of nowhere. There's an analogy somewhere, I just can't put my finger on it.

    The Northern Beltline has the distinct displeasure of stomping through several fragile ecosystems made more so by years of industrial pollution. Black Warrior Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center are not pleased about the Beltline coming to fruition. As much noise is made over environmental affairs in the state, moneyed interests and big industry usually wins out.

    The city of Birmingham as it appears today. Never mind the Corridor X bit -- that's already over and done with.

    My biggest concern is sprawl. Living outside of Atlanta's I-285 perimeter's given me a front-row seat to how suburban sprawl plays out when left unchecked. Left to their own devices, property developers will build communities and shopping centers with absolutely no regard to traffic flow and commute times -- that's not their problem. Given that and Atlanta's "fuck a grid, mufucka" road layout (a Southern tradition), and you're left with one of the most excruciating commuting experiences this side of L.A. At least Atlanta has MARTA rail -- it helps a little.

    It's a big reason why U.S. 280 remains a jawdropping clusterfuck of stop-and-go retail and residential traffic. It's why, in a few years' time, Shelby County commuters will clammor for the widening of Grant's Mill Road, a roadway that happens to cross over Lake Purdy, a large water reservoir for the city of Birmingham. If the Northern Beltline is built, property developers will go nuts. And when that happens...

    Before plunging face-first into a decades-long project answering a question that should had been answered back in 1980, let's first try to learn the lessons of Atlanta's I-285, if only to avoid GDOT's screwups and crib their better ideas...nah. Chances are we'll multiply their screwups by a factor of 5 and pocket the kickbacks and graft that come from it.