By Thomas Spencer
A $10 million infusion of federal transportation dollars will pay for repaired streets, new sidewalks, bike lanes and paths in Birmingham, particularly in tornado-battered Pratt City.
Birmingham native and U.S. Department of Transportation official Dana Gresham last visited Pratt City in the days after the April 27, 2011, tornadoes in the company of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
On Friday, he delivered the good news to the diverse coalition that backed Birmingham's successful bid in the fiercely competitive TIGER Grant competition.
"The secretary ... said he wanted to be a partner to help rebuild the community," said Gresham who was flanked by U.S. Rep Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, and Birmingham Mayor William Bell. "I'm here to honor that commitment ... It is always nice to be home. It is especially nice to come home with a $10 million check."
Pratt City was the centerpiece of the city's "Roads to Recovery" grant application, which also included bike and pedestrian corridors between Railroad Park, Sloss Furnaces, the Civil Rights district and other neighborhoods, as well as projects in Homewood, Midfield and Fairfield.
Not every project in the original proposal will be paid for. The city's application included $30 million worth of projects, with $23 million requested from Washington and $7 million pledged by state and local governments, businesses, charities and individuals.
Gresham, DOT's assistant secretary for governmental affairs, said several flat $10 million awards were made so the money could be spread among 47 projects in 34 states. The TIGER grants announced Friday are worth $500 million. There were applications for 703 projects worth $10.2 billion.
U.S. DOT and the city of Birmingham will negotiate and sign an agreement on which projects from the application will be paid for. Officials indicated two big-ticket projects -- $9 million to extend Homewood's Shades Creek Greenway and a $5 million entrance road for Red Mountain Park -- likely will not receive money from this grant. Both are expected to proceed independently with funding from other sources.
"The coalition of communities and organizations that have come together behind this grant is incredibly impressive," Gresham said. "I think we all know we are working in an environment of finite resources, so from a federal standpoint it is always extraordinarily helpful to see a large commitment from the local community, the private and public sector and the region as a whole behind one project."
Sewell and fellow U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills, both were credited with pushing the proposal, as was the Bell administration.
The compilation of the grant application was spearheaded by the Freshwater Land Trust, the non-profit land conservation organization. The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and a constellation of donors large and small pledged local match money to the project.
UAB and the School of Medicine pledged money. The Jefferson County Health Department, which already had supported the development of a master plan for greenways in Jefferson County as part of its campaign to reduce obesity, also pledged $1 million. CSX railroad offered to sell abandoned railroad right-of-way that could be used to develop a greenway at a $250,000 discount in recognition of its employees living in the Pratt City area.
Big business and environmental groups wrote letters of support.
"This is really a celebration of our collaborative effort," Sewell said.
"It is not just about Birmingham," Bell said, "but it is about all the municipalities in this great metropolitan area."
Though Red Mountain Park's major request is not expected to be funded, park Executive Director David Dionne was on hand for the announcement, his enthusiasm undiminished. A proposed greenway along an abandoned rail high-line on the north side of the mountain would connect the park to western communities.
"It is a huge win for Birmingham," he said. "Red Mountain Park is very pleased to have been part of the initiative."
Dionne said the park will adjust plans and timetables while pursuing other sources of money. The planning and development of the 1,200-acre park on the Red Mountain ridge west of Interstate 65 has been a dynamic process, and its development always has been expected to occur over the course of decades. A system of trails in the eastern half of the park already is open, as is a zip-line course that generates revenue for the park.
"I think we'll come up with something cost-effective that will help us continue the staged development of the park," Dionne said.
Homewood City Council President Allyn Holladay said the Tiger money might have sped up that project, but adjustments to the trail's original designs are under way, and Holladay was confident the City Council would continue to pursue it. "It is a project we are committed to," she said.