Group says opponents, regional planning commission conspired to kill Northern Beltline project

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By: Mike D. Smith | Birmingham News

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — The JobKeeper Alliance, a group of business and labor interests formed to support the Northern Beltline, claims an opponent worked with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham to kill the project.

Construction of the first segment of the planned $5.45 billion, 52-mile corridor is scheduled to begin early next year between Alabama 75 and Alabama 79 near Pinson.

The project has attracted vocal public opposition from opponents who question the new interstate’s need and economic and environmental impacts. The JobKeeper Alliance states that a prime opponent has had inappropriate influence with the planning commission in an attempt to block construction. Alliance spokesman Patrick Cagle said emails requested from the planning commission show Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, had undue influence on the planning commission’s selection of a $250,000 consultant firm that has say in the priority of regional transportation projects. In 2012, the commission selected a firm to help form the regional transportation plan. Listing a project in the regional plan is a required step for securing federal construction money.

Cagle said email communication shows that during the selection process, planner Darrell Howard allowed Johnston and other SELC lawyers to evaluate and rank nine sealed bids from firms competing for the contract. The winning firm was Renaissance Planning Group, which Cagle said was recommended by Johnston even though it ranked third after the firms were evaluated and scored. The SELC is involved in two lawsuits filed to stop the project. One, filed in 2011, calls for an updated environmental impact study. The other, filed in October, challenges a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit for the first segment of the highway. Other communication shows Howard and Johnston met in a secret location with the leader of the Ochs Center in May 2012 to discuss the project. Cagle said at that time, the Ochs Center was working on its economic impact study that countered job and economic benefit numbers put forth by proponents.

“This unethical and potentially illegal collusion associated with the awarding of this consulting contract is appalling,” Cagle said. “We believe this issue must be fully investigated by the appropriate federal and state agencies. Cagle said the relationship implied by the emails could put the future of the project in jeopardy, possibly by keeping future segments out of the regional plan which would render them ineligible for funding. He called on planning commission Executive Director Charles Ball to launch an internal investigation. Cagle said the alliance has given the information to U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, who has forwarded the information to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general for review. The contract involved federal funds, he said.