I-59/20 downtown viaduct

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The I-20/59 downtown viaduct (or, officially, the I-59/20 downtown viaduct) is an elevated section of I-20/59 running east to west through downtown Birmingham from "Malfunction Junction" to 31st Street North.

The downtown viaduct was designed to carry 80,000 cars per day. It was originally planned to be built over mounds of fill dirt brought downtown from the Red Mountain cut, but civic leaders eventually pushed for it to be left open underneath for parking. The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) instructed the City of Birmingham that any changes made to its design, and the cost of any delays, would have to be paid for by the city.

In June 1964 the Downtown Improvement Association and Downtown Action Committee joined with the Birmingham City Council in passing resolutions asking Mayor Albert Boutwell to commission a feasibility and cost study for providing space for automobile parking underneath the four block area between 18th and 22nd Street adjoining the Civic Center and also under parts of the Red Mountain Expressway between 2nd and 6th Avenues North near the Birmingham Post Office. At the time it was anticipated that it would be possible to build a two-level parking structure below the interstates, providing as many as 1,360 spaces. Opposition to the proposal came from the operators of private parking lots.

The city's proposal won out, and the 1.3-mile stretch of bridges was completed in 1971. No multi-level parking structures were built, but ALDOT and Birmingham made an agreement around the time of completion to allow the areas under the viaduct between 19th and 23rd Streets North to be used for public parking. Once paved, 750 parking free spaces were provided. The agreement also stipulated that either party could end it with 90 days notice.

In June 2014, given concerns about the state of repair of the viaduct and planning to begin the construction to replace it in 2015, ALDOT provided noticed that they were ending the agreement. Workers barricaded the parking lot entrances on September 2, 2014. Chain link fencing was later erected under the viaduct to completely block access to the former parking areas. The Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex pointed out that other parking options were available in the area, including the Boutwell Auditorium parking deck, the BJCC East Parking Garage, BJCC West Parking, and five lots around Uptown.

Replacement

A new concrete support being placed prior to demolition of the existing bridge decks. Photograph by Joe Songer for The Birmingham News.

Birmingham's 2004 City Center Master Plan Update introduced the idea of lowering the interstate into a below-grade cut through downtown and then decking over wide sections of the highway to provide pedestrian plazas connecting the municipal center with the BJCC. The planners noted that the 1971 bridges were serving beyond their original design life and were due for replacement.

A few years later, the Alabama Department of Transportation proposed a modest bridge deck replacement project. That proposal was expanded into a viaduct replacement plan, with new, wider bridge decks spanning farther between larger, higher support posts. That scheme eliminated all left-lane exits and most other downtown access roads and proposed using pre-cast, post-tensioned concrete deck sections rather than steel beams to allow for 165-foot spans and reduce road noise.

The first phase of preparatory work began in 2015. The second phase of the bridge replacement project was awarded to Granite Construction of Watsonville, California in February 2016.

The lowest bid for the third phase of construction, including the downtown bridge replacement, came in approximately $507.9 million, almost 54% more than ALDOT's estimate of $397 million. The department opted to re-bid that phase of the project, allowing bidders to propose cost-saving changes, with bids due on March 31, 2017. The second round of bidding was won by Johnson Brothers Corporation of Fort Worth, Texas with a bid of $474.8 million and a 425-day construction window. The contract includes a premium of $250,000 for each day the contractor saves if the project is completed earlier, and a penalty of the same amount for each day of delay if the schedule is not met. Work on the deck replacement itself began on January 21, 2019, with completion of the entire project expected in January 2021. In April 2019 around 24 of the pre-cast deck sections were discovered to be too rough to meet the design specifications. Recasting of those pieces ate up some of the time that the contractor had banked. In late June ALDOT announced that the project was about 65% complete, and still on schedule for a March 21, 2021 deadline.

In July 2018 ALDOT hosted two public meetings to hear residents' proposals for a linear "park", dubbed CityWalk BHAM, which would be constructed below the interstate and opened in November 2020.

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