The Anti-Atlanta

(The case for moving 20/59)


The news and debate over 20/59 continues in Birmingham, even as ALDOT seeks with every muscle in its body to move ahead with plans of expanding the existing roadway. While I am happy to see at least a few people in Birmingham who care enough about the good of the city that they are willing to stand up and try to stop this, it does seem like another case of lost opportunity in the “Magic” city. I want to look at the history of this road and the debate around it and present why I think it should be moved.

The first question that we should ask when we debate the existence of 20/59 is why is this road here in the first place? That might seem like a simple question at first, it is there to move cars, but underneath all the assumptions in that statement is the history of the interstate in America. The interstate is a project begun in the 1950’s to create a national highway system across America. At the time is was the largest construction project in the world and cost more than the Apollo program. The reasoning was simple, create a national network of roads which would connect cities and states across America, allowing for the easy and quick movement of people and goods. There was already a highway system in America but it was more limited and inconsistent, especially in the 1950’s. So the interstate was born. But there was another function that the interstate would assume, one that had nothing to do with moving people across the country.


If you look at the route of the interstate in Alabama (this applies all over the country) you notice a fundamental difference in how the interstate was laid out. In all of the small cities in Alabama (T-Town, Auburn-Opelika, Anniston, Gadsden, Cullman, Decatur), the interstate runs well outside the urban developed center of those towns, especially the urban area at the time the interstate was built. Of course this makes total sense, why would the DOT run the road through the middle of town? The trouble, cost and destruction that would cause would be pointless. Instead, drivers easily exit the interstate and drive into town. This is totally different than how interstates were run in major cities, including Birmingham. 20/59 runs within 500ft of city hall! Clearly it was not easier, cheaper, or less destructive to do this. Quite the opposite, it was orders of magnitude harder given the size, population and value of the land in Birmingham. Why run the interstate through the very center of the city? Birmingham, especially at that time, runs in a very east-west direction. This is because the city was laid along Red Mountain in Jones Valley which runs east-west. Due to this, you could argue that it would have been very difficult to run I-65 around the city, since it would have to veer either far east around Irondale/East Lake or far west around Bessemer. However, 20/59 could have easily run north of the city, avoiding not only downtown but East Lake, West End and Ensley. This would have been vastly easier and cheaper for the DOT, so why did they not do this? Because another purpose for the interstate arose in the automobile age, one that had nothing to do with moving people and goods across country. If you live in Norwood and work downtown, you do not need the interstate. If you live in West End or East Lake or Ensley and work downtown, you can easily take surface streets into the city center . The interstate, built as it was, was designed to quickly and easily move people from their homes to their jobs in the city center. But this was not for the benefit of Birmingham, it was so that people could live far outside the city and commute in. This is why ALDOT went through the enormous effort to squeeze the interstate into the heart of the urban core and why I think at least in part they are still very reluctant to move 20/59 out of the city center.


This is sadly a story you can repeat all over America, cross out Birmingham and insert preferred large metro area. So what makes Birmingham special, other than that I live here and not those other urban areas? Many cities regret sections of their interstate and the negative effects it has on the city center. A few cities have moved/buried/eliminated these roads but most have limited options for improvement. This is where the history of the debate of 20/59 comes in.

I’m sure it didn’t take long after 20/59 was built to realize it had a profound negative effect upon the city center. The people living in the neighborhoods north of downtown probably realized this before it was even finished. It divided the city, cutting off the neighborhoods north of downtown and was a blight on the urban core. Once again, it is a blight on an area less that 500ft from city hall! As a reminder to you the reader of the long term impact of building such roads, the large majority of the people who originally planned and built 20/59 are now dead. The next generation arose, realized the problems of the downtown viaduct and sought a solution. I have read from various articles on the move 20/59 debate that the anticipated failure of this campaign for change rest with a failure of leadership in the city. I do not think this is primarily the case. A plan for changing this road was actually put forth over a decade ago. The fundamental problem was the lack of vision in seeing that this road should never have been here to begin with. Instead, a terrible idea was put forward to sink the road, an idea ALDOT had every right to reject. This brings me back to what makes Birmingham unique. The Big Dig is a word synonymous with massive, over budget and long delayed civil projects and it deserves this stigma because that is exactly what happened. What else could Boston have done? Well, it could have lived with its interstate running through the heart of the city or it could have totally removed it, neither of which were good options. Instead, it chose to pursue the extremely difficult task of burying an interstate. Today, the end result of the project is without a doubt a much better Boston, but imagine what could have been done with all that time and money. Several subway lines probably could have been built.

Why does this matter to Birmingham other than to serve as a warning not to bury 20/59? Birmingham is in a unique position in that 20/59 can be relatively easily moved north of downtown due to the largely unused corridor that exist between downtown and North Birmingham. That ALDOT did not originally use this corridor which is itself very close to the city center shows how fixated planners were in running interstates through the center of the city. While no plan is perfect and some people will be displaced in rerouting the interstate, the scale of impact will be incredibly small in comparison to the “options” most cities have. It also does not have to be extremely divisive and difficult to procure that land as ALDOT claims. This is not the state coming in and saying give us your land. Move20/59 is a grassroots community effort born out of frustrations with the current road system. While it is regrettable that this plan for change was not put forth until such a late hour, that does not mean it should not be pursued. ALDOT wants to portray a narrative that it will take decades just to secure the land rights for this. That might be true if it was building a road no one except for a few land developers wanted and it spent years in court trying to use eminent domain to take that land. But what if the city could come together with the land owners and amicably agree to sell the land? If that could happen, right of way could be achieved in a very short period of time. I think this is an option worth pursuing. Once again, whatever is done, we will have to live with the results of that for most of the remainder of our lives.


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