BIRMINGHAM — At an Alabama League of Municipalities Luncheon on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Hoover) spoke about the importance of finishing Birmingham's Northern Beltline and advocated for widening Interstate 65, though he said he didn't know if that should be a top priority.
The Northern Beltline is a planned 52-mile road connecting Interstate 59 to Interstate 20/59 south of Birmingham. This would complete a bypass loop around the city, relieving downtown Birmingham's traffic congestion.
The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) broke ground on the project in 2014 but ceased construction in 2016 due to a lack of funding.
Palmer, alongside Gov. Kay Ivey, announced in April that construction on a 10-mile stretch of the project would begin soon, using nearly $500 million in federal funding over the next five years. Ivey suggested that the Beltline could divert over 18,000 semi-trucks from downtown Birmingham daily.
The entire Beltline was initially estimated to cost $3.4 billion, but the price rose in 2011 to $4.7 billion. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) now estimates the project will cost $5.44 billion, averaging over $100 million per mile of road, making it the most expensive road project in Alabama's history.
Of the $489 million in federal funding the state has secured to fund the construction of the 10-mile stretch of the beltline for the next five years, over $300 million comes from President Joe Biden's $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which Congress passed in 2021.
On top of funding challenges, the project has faced opposition from environmental activists who have vowed to challenge it in court. Nevertheless, a poll released in July showed major support for the Beltline despite doubts about when ALDOT would complete it.
"Most of you know that we were able to get some funding for the Northern Beltline, which I think is critical for Central Alabama," Palmer said. "Not just the Sixth District, but for Central Alabama, it's something that was approved in 1989, so it's only taken, what? Thirty-three, 34 years to get here? And we've got the funding to do the next ten miles."
"I think it's critical for Alabama to be able to compete with Texas and Tennessee and South Carolina, places like that, particularly for technology," he continued. "I think we've got an opportunity to have one of the best technology quarters in the country that could rival anybody."
Gardendale Mayor Stan Hogeland asked Palmer when construction would begin again on the Beltline, which would pass through his city, now that it's received federal funding.
Palmer said ALDOT should start breaking ground again on the project in November.
"We need to find out if there's anything that might be holding us up," he added.
"The funding is there now, and that's why I asked Congressman Palmer about getting started," Hogeland later told 1819 News. "Exactly what remains, I don't know. I know there's opposition. But, you know, until we get started, people are always going to doubt the project. That's why it's so important now on the economic development side."
Palmer also joked about the necessity of widening Interstate 65, which runs through the entirety of the state, connecting Chicago to Mobile.
"Of course, we've got to six-lane both sides of I-65 because we want all those Yankees to come down here and spend their money in Alabama," he said. "It is a multi-billion-dollar business, our tourism business. We have a lot to promote here, and we could do more."
The expansion of Interstate 65 has become controversial among Alabama's public figures. Ivey and state transportation officials have dedicated their attention to constructing a four-lane West Alabama Corridor connecting Mobile and Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, other state politicians, such as Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, have suggested making Interstate 65 six lines.
During his speech at an Alabama Republican Party Dinner (ALGOP) earlier this month, former President Donald Trump even vowed six lines for the interstate if elected president in 2024.
At the luncheon, 1819 News asked Palmer about his comment regarding Interstate 65.
"That was kind of a joke," he said. "President said at the dinner the other night. I'm focused on the Northern Beltline, but it would be helpful to widen I-65 because there's an enormous amount of traffic coming from northern states going to our beaches. I don't know if that will be the top priority. Obviously, Gov. Ivey has made it a priority to build a West Alabama Corridor."
Palmer, who serves on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, also discussed energy policy and the futility of abandoning natural gas in favor of renewable energy, which he said would make us dependent on adversarial countries like China.
Don't miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.