By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Friday, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama Northern Division ruled against the Black Warrior Riverkeeper (BWR) in BWR’s request for a preliminary injunction to block the start of construction for the Northern Beltline.
BWR had requested the injunction, claiming that the start of construction on a 1.8 mile segment of the Northern Beltline which joins State Roads 79 and 75 violated the National Environmental Policy Act requirements and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (CORPS) should have conducted an Environmental Impact Study for the entire 50.1 mile Northern Beltline project instead of only the first segment. BWR asked for the preliminary injunction against the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The executive director of the Coalition for Regional Transportation, Renee Carter said, “This very strong order of the federal court reflects exactly what we have been saying about the need for the Northern Beltline for the past several years – that it is a necessary and justifiable transportation project that will tremendously benefit the people of this area. We are both very pleased and gratified by the court’s order.”
In the ruling the judge found, “The appropriate question is whether the SR 79/75 project serves a significant purpose if the other portions are not built… The evidence establishes that the SR 79/75 segment increases the utility of the existing roadway network by providing access between well-traveled highways. Further, the SR 79/75 segment will relieve traffic on arterial and city streets.”
The ruling further said, “…the SR79/75 project satisfies NEPA regulations because it has independent utility, logical termini, and does not foreclose other alternatives for the overall project. Moreover, requiring the Corps to prepare an EIS for each 404 permit would likely result in the project never being started at all and would be useless and redundant.” “…The public also has an interest in development that will promote job growth and economic stability, and Plaintiff does not establish a factual weight of harm to override the public interest in development.” Finally, “…consideration must be given to the fact that substantial funds have already been expended to begin construction on the 1.86-mile project, including preparation for preliminary engineering, right-of-way acquisition, and utility relocation work. Delaying construction would have significant financial impacts on Defendants and the public treasury, especially if the bid process has to be repeated.”
The construction of the Northern Beltline in Jefferson County is expected to enhance cross-region accessibility, create jobs and stimulate economic growth. Thousands of construction jobs will be created to build the new interstate connecting I-59 near Deerfoot in Trussville with I-59/I-20 near the I-459 junction west of Bessemer. The project will bring new housing and businesses to northern Jefferson County and 41 governing bodies have passed resolutions supporting the Northern Beltline. Not everyone however is happy with the project. Radical environmental groups have opposed the project due to their stated concerns about water runoff from the project.
JobKeeper Alliance, a job-focused nonprofit organization had stated their concerns that the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) will try to use a federal lawsuit the group filed over 30 months ago to block the start of construction on the Northern Beltline, which Governor Robert Bentley (R) has is supposed to begin this year.
Governor Bentley said, “We’re committed to building the Northern Beltline in the most environmentally responsible way possible.”
In 2011, the SELC filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper claiming that ALDOT inadequately assessed the potential environmental impact of the proposed highway.
JobKeeper Alliance has been a vocal supporter of the job-creating highway project.
The Executive Director of JobKeeper Alliance Patrick Cagle said, “The fact that this project is supported by the vast majority of elected officials, including Governor Bentley, is a clear sign that the public has rejected SELC’s claims. Our concern is that SELC will now try to use the federal court system to accomplish their goal of killing the Northern Beltline; disregarding the will of our state’s leaders.”
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said in a written statement, “The Northern Beltline will support economic development and additional job creation in Jefferson County. 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.”
Construction of the first 1.34 mile phase of the project between State Highway 75 and State Highway 79 in northeast Jefferson County is expected to be completed in five to six years. The Northern Beltline will be built entirely with federal funds. The State will not even have to contribute matching funds thus the project does not divert limited state highway resources away from other projects and priorities.
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