SELC’s opposition to the Northern Beltline is about more than just a highway

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Op Ed by: Stewart Burkhalter
Stewart Burkhalter is the former President of the Alabama AFL-CIO and current board chairman of JobKeeper Alliance, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization.

JobKeeper Alliance has made protecting the thousands of construction jobs and long-term economic growth associated with Northern Beltline a top priority. Our organization has worked hard to notify the public of the effort mounted by the Southern Environmental Law Center to block construction of the Beltline. We have utilized earned media, direct communication and radio advertising to deliver our fact-based message to the public. Thousands of people have visited our website to learn more about this issue and many have taken the time to share their personal thoughts about this project with us.

From inception to construction, public infrastructure projects such as the Northern Beltline are subjected to a maze of state and federal agencies. These agencies are collectively responsible for addressing critical issues such as the necessity of a proposed project as well as the economic, social, and environmental implications associated with the project. Our democracy ensures that infrastructure projects are prioritized and funded according to project necessity and public demand. If our elected officials in Washington, D.C., and in Montgomery do not prioritize projects appropriately, voters will voice their disapproval at the ballot box during the next election cycle.

The lawsuit filed by the SELC and Black Warrior Riverkeeper in an effort to block construction of the Beltline threatens our democracy. These groups are attempting to use our courts to circumvent legislatively determined public policy and replace it with policy aligned with their personal agenda. This is a slippery-slope that could lead to a future where the personal preference of a few individuals overshadows the needs and wellbeing of the general public.

There are two things to keep in mind when evaluating the validity of the concerns that SELC and BWRK point to in their argument for abandoning the Northern Beltline. 1). SELC’s goal is, and always has been, to permanently stop construction of the Northern Beltline. 2). The SELC has effectively abandoned its original environmental concerns in favor of arguments about fiscal responsibility. Most of the fiscal concerns raised by SELC are based on events that did not occur until years after the group first targeted the Beltline project in May of 2005. The SELC’s “kitchen sink strategy” of raising any concern they can come up with effectively conceals the group’s agenda.

The SELC takes offense to being called an anti-growth group. However, this term accurately describes the practical implication of their policies. The group has cleverly adopted the term “sprawl” to conceal their anti-growth mission. While most dictionaries offer varying definitions for this word, a thorough review of the 124 references to “sprawl” on the SELC website leads me to conclude that this group defines “sprawl” as any new growth that occurs in a previously undeveloped area. By this definition, the growth of areas such as Mountain Brook, Vestavia, and Hoover would be considered “sprawl.” The SELC’s attempt to stop the new growth that would result from the construction of the Northern Beltline is disenfranchising to the residents and elected officials and all of the small towns throughout Jefferson County.

JobKeeper Alliance may not agree with the SELC’s agenda, but we respect its right to pursue it. However, we believe that the SELC has an obligation to inform the public of its full agenda, including the desire to stop new growth from occurring in undeveloped areas. Also, the SELC should either disclose to the public that they are seeking, as part of their lawsuit, attorney fees to by paid to them by ALDOT, or amend the lawsuit and remove their request for financial compensation.