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Environmental groups lose, Birmingham’s Northern Beltline set for groundbreaking


BIRMINGHAM — The Coalition for Regional Transportation announced Tuesday evening that a groundbreaking ceremony for the Northern Beltline will be held on Monday, April 21. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley will lead the event, which is expected to draw a significant number of elected officials from the federal, state and local levels.

The event will mark the long-awaited beginning of construction on the Northern Beltline. Once completed, the beltline will be a 52-mile highway running from Interstate 59 in northeast Jefferson County to the Interstate 459 and I-20/59 junction in southwest Jefferson County. The first phase of construction will include a 1.34 mile portion between Alabama Highways 75 and 79 in northeast Jefferson County. It is expected to take five to six years to complete.

The start date of construction has been up in the air since several environmental groups came together and filed a lawsuit in October of last year in an effort to stop the project from moving forward.

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers approved the permit for construction, but the Southern Environmental Law Center filed suit on behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper Inc. challenging the permit and seeking to block construction.

Map of the Northern Beltline
Map of the Northern Beltline

According to the Birmingham Business Journal, “the lawsuit claimed the Corps of Engineers should have performed an environmental evaluation of the entire 52-mile project, rather than segmenting the project and evaluating only the first phase — which will connect Alabama 75 and Alabama 79.”

A U.S. District Court judge ultimately ruled against the environmental groups, finding that “requiring the Corps to prepare [a study for each section of the beltline ahead of time] would likely result in the project never being started at all and would be useless and redundant.”

Environmental groups have made a concerted effort to increase their presence in Alabama over the last 12 months.

At least six Alabama groups received grants last year from a national environmental foundation. In all, roughly $3 million was pumped into the state to fund various green energy or global warming-related advocacy efforts.

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The environmental groups say the Northern Beltline will hurt wildlife in the area.

“The Northern Beltline will cross and permanently alter Black Warrior and Cahaba river tributaries in 67 places,” Nelson Brooke of Black Warrior Riverkeeper said. “The (Alabama Department of Transportation) and (Federal Highway Administration) have not adequately studied impacts to water resources and wildlife along the entire chosen route, which is the longest and most environmentally destructive of the seven routes considered.”

But Gov. Bentley and economic developers have touted the economic growth that will come with the Beltline’s construction.

“The Northern Beltline will support economic development and additional job creation in Jefferson County,” Bentley said. “It will link all the Interstates in the county, and it will increase accessibility to several communities. New industries look for modern infrastructure and convenient access when considering locations to build and create jobs. The Northern Beltline will spur economic growth and benefit drivers and residents throughout Jefferson County.”

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