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Group accuses Regional Planning Commission, Law Center of trying - abc27 WHTM

Group accuses Regional Planning Commission, Law Center of trying to nix Northern Beltline project

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Some serious allegations surfaced Wednesday about the Northern Beltline project.

An organization, the Jobkeeper Alliance, claims to have proof at least two men working for major agencies tried to nix the project. Construction on the 52-mile corridor is scheduled to start in February or March of next year between Alabama 75 and Alabama 79 near Pinson.

The Alliance's executive director Patrick Cagle says there were inappropriate exchanges between a planner with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham and attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center, an advocacy group for environmental protection.

Cagle says he received emails and other documentation from the RPC through an Open Records Act request. He says the information suggests two main improprieties. One, he claims, centers on emails from 2012 when Darrell Howard with the RPC agreed to meet secretly with attorney Keith Johnston from the SELC. Cagle says emails show that meeting would include a CEO of a Chattanooga-based company that was preparing a report that opposed the project.

He also says that, in response, Howard suggested the three meet "someplace a bit off the beaten path- for obvious reasons."

Secondly, Cagle says Howard allowed the SELC attorneys to rank consulting firms vying for a $250,000 contract on a long-range transportation plan. The Renaissance Planning Group was selected even though, Cagle says, it ranked third in composite evaluation scores. He alleges the SELC influenced that decision. 

"Any outside entity shouldn't be allowed to influence the awarding of a consulting contract, particularly, a lawyer with a law firm that has filed two lawsuits against the project," Cagle says referencing two federal lawsuits the SELC filed on behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper to stop the Alabama Department of Transportation from starting the project.

ABC 33/40 has obtained statements from Both Ball and Johnston. Both are included below.

Charles Ball, Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham (it reads in part):

"Today, the JobKeeper Alliance made several accusations against the RPCGB. Most notably that the Commission was in "collusion" with the Southern Environmental Law Center to prevent the construction of the Northern Beltline. This and other accusations made are blatantly false. The RPCGB serves as staff to the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). The MPO is tasked with developing the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). The RTP is a long-range plan that includes a balanced mix of projects such as bridges, bicycle paths, sidewalks, transit
services, new and upgraded roadways, safety improvements, transportation demand management initiatives and emission reduction strategies. The Regional Planning Commission coordinates the RTP and works through a consultation process with local governments, citizens, non-profits and businesses in Blount, Chilton, Jefferson, St. Clair, Shelby and Walker counties. It is through this process that opportunities and cost effective solutions are identified to assure physical and economic growth. In order to meet the demands of the RTP process, RPCGB routinely contracts for technical expertise. In January 2012, RPCGB released a Request for Qualifications to identify firms with the necessary qualifications to perform consulting services. RPCGB utilized the AlabamaDepartment of Transportation's approved contractor list to announce the RFQ as the
Commission is required by federal regulation. Ten organizations submitted proposals, but only nine met the guidelines of the RFQ announcement. RPCGB developed a panel to review the submissions. The Alliance's press conference handout asserts that RPCGB issued a single contract to Renaissance Planning Group for $250,000. This is not the whole truth. All of the top five ranked firms, which included Renaissance signed contracts with RPCGB to be placed on retainer. Three of the five, including the top firm have been awarded task orders to perform
work. Notably, the top ranked firm, ranked fifth from the Southern Environmental Law Center. Furthermore, the contracts in question have no specific bearing on the Northern Beltline. TheRTP is a regional document that ensures that the region is eligible for federal highway funding for a vast array of projects which includes the Northern Beltline.......In closing, I would ask that JobKeeper Alliance retract their blatantly false and erroneous comments about the Commission and its staff."


Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center's Birmingham office: 

"While this is a foreign concept to a group like JobKeeper Alliance – whose only activity is trying to drum up controversy with nonsensical attacks – SELC has good relationships with policymakers. Along with many other individuals and groups, we are often asked to share our input and expertise on issues, including transportation and planning issues in Birmingham. This is how the public policy process works. 
Today's stunt from JobKeeper is their latest desperate attempt to stifle public discussion about the legitimate questions posed by the Northern Beltline proposal. Their claims are baseless. We wish they'd put as much energy into having a productive and civil conversation about the real issues that matter to Birmingham and Alabama."

 

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