- Associated Press - Monday, April 21, 2014

PALMERDALE, Ala. (AP) - Gov. Robert Bentley and other leaders put aside complaints from environmentalists Monday to break ground for an envisioned 52-mile road that one day would complete a perimeter highway around Alabama’s largest metropolitan area.

A ceremony was held to mark the first phase of work on the long-delayed Northern Beltline, which is intended to eventually make it easier for travelers to avoid downtown traffic in Birmingham.

Bentley, who turned a shovel full of red dirt alongside other project supporters, approved the first construction stage in the fall, but the road is expected to take more than 25 years to complete.

Economic development officials contend the highway will open the area to new industry and jobs.

Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Birmingham, said the project has been on the federal agenda for more than two decades. Sen. Jeff Sessions said construction of what will be known as Interstate 422 was “welcome news.”

“Just like the completed I-459 project, the Northern Beltline is important to continued development throughout this part of Birmingham’s metropolitan area,” said Sessions, R-Ala.

But environmental groups have filed suit to block the road, claiming the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ignored clean water rules to approve construction. They said the groundbreaking was a distraction to what they call a wasteful project.

“To continue investing in an unnecessary road that will cross and permanently alter streams and wetlands in 125 places, impacting two major sources of local drinking water, is nothing to celebrate,” said a statement by Nelson Brooke of Black Warrior Riverkeeper.

The road is expected to cost nearly $5.5 billion.

Interstate 459 already encircles the southern and eastern sides of Birmingham. The beltline would connect with I-459 southwest of Birmingham and Interstate 59 to the northeast.

The first section of the highway is only 1.3 miles long. Aside from completing the Birmingham perimeter, the highway would connect with the soon-to-be completed Interstate 22, which links Birmingham and Memphis, Tenn.