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

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.

JobKeeper Alliance To SELC: Don’t Use Lawsuit To Block 1,300 New Jobs

JobKeeper Alliance issued the following press release on October 9, 2013:

Birmingham, Ala.­– JobKeeper Alliance, a job-focused nonprofit organization, is concerned the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) will try to use the federal lawsuit the firm filed more than 30 months ago to block the start of construction on the Northern Beltline, which is currently slated to begin in early 2014.

Last week, Governor Robert Bentley announced that ALDOT has been issued the final permit needed to begin work on the first segment of the 52 mile Northern Beltline. He also expressed his confidence that the new highway will not threaten the environment. “We’re committed to building the Northern Beltline in the most environmentally responsible way possible,” Bentley said.

In 2011, SELC filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper claiming ALDOT inadequately assessed the potential environmental impact of the proposed highway.

However, for the last two years SELC has used economic concerns to fight against the Northern Beltline, saying very little about the ongoing environmental lawsuit.

JobKeeper Alliance, a vocal supporter of the job-creating highway project, believes SELC filed the lawsuit to delay the project while the law firm and Black Warrior Riverkeeper attempted to erode public support for the Northern Beltline through an aggressive PR campaign focusing on the cost of the project.

“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” said Patrick Cagle, Executive Director of JobKeeper Alliance. “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.”

Jobkeeper Alliance says it is highly likely that SELC will attempt to use their lawsuit to block the start of construction on the Northern Beltline, which is currently scheduled to begin in early 2014. The Alliance says it would be wrong for the environmental law firm to block the more than 1,300 initial jobs that will be created when construction starts on the highway project.

JobKeeper Alliance is a 501c(4) alliance formed between the business community and labor. This partnership is cemented by the two group’s mutual interest in protecting jobs and working to create new jobs. For more information, visit www.jobkeeperalliance.org

 

###

Public hearings held by the Alabama PSC produces results

08-13-2013_PSC_meeting The three part series of public rate hearings held by the Alabama Public Service Commission to review the ratemaking process for state’s largest electric utility culminated with an agreement that will save ratepayers money. The rate reduction, along with modifications to the ratemaking formula known as RSE were recommended by PSC staff and accepted by a majority vote of the commission at the PSC’s August 13th meeting.

At the first PSC meeting of 2013, JobKeeper Alliance held a press conference to express our concerns about a coordinated effort by several environmental groups and their allies seeking to create a “fire-storm about utility rates.” Their goal was to create a controversy that would lead to formal rate hearings, then hijack the closed-door venue and use it to advance their anti-coal agenda. We adamantly oppose this radical agenda because ending the use of coal in Alabama will raise energy costs, kill thousands of existing jobs, and hamper future economic development and job creation efforts.

We appreciate Commission President Twinkle Cavanaugh and Commissioner Jeremy Oden for supporting inclusive and transparent public rate hearings and opposing the environmentalist’s demand for closed-door hearings. By welcoming all citizens and organizations to participate in the open public hearings, the environmentalist’s unpopular agenda was met with fierce opposition from dozens of pro-job groups, local leaders, and hard-working Alabamians.

We are, however, disappointed that Commissioner Terry Dunn voted against the rate reduction supported by Commissioners Cavanaugh and Oden. Commissioner Dunn’s vote against the plan has once again placed him on the side of the environmental groups and their ally AARP, who is publicly backing the environmentalist’s agenda in nearby states. With Commissioner Dunn’s base of supporters thinning, we are concerned that he will likely continue clinging to the company of those courting him.

We also fully expect that the environmental lobby will continue to push forward in their campaign to change Alabama’s energy policy. As a result, JobKeeper Alliance will continue to vigorously oppose efforts of those who threaten existing jobs and future job-creating economic growth.

 

JobKeeper Alliance Statement on President Obama's Climate Agenda

Coal Barg Captin JobKeeper Alliance strongly opposes President Obama’s plan to sidestep congress and use his executive power to impose new regulations on existing power plants. The plan he outlined promises to be an unprecedented government overreach that will kill countless jobs. This policy shift will turn the war on coal in to the war on working families, and it could not have come at a worse time. Our economy is still struggling to replace the jobs lost during the Great Recession, and we cannot afford another setback.

The President’s climate agenda is simply cap-and-trade by another name. It is a policy that he admitted would cause energy costs to “necessarily skyrocket” during a 2008 meeting with the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board. (view the video) The ripple effect caused by rising energy costs will negatively impact all aspects of our economy. Higher energy costs will ultimately be passed onto the consumer as an ad hoc energy tax added to the price of all domestically produced goods and services. Even worse, it will actually penalize U.S. manufacturing companies by making it harder for them to compete against foreign made products.

Environmental activist groups have promised to defend the President’s misguided climate agenda. The odds may be against us, but we must aggressively fight to protect working families and the jobs they depend on.