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Promises mean little when it comes to transportation

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a 5-part series that takes a look at the potential for economic development in West Alabama and the Black Belt.

It wouldn’t be fair to say Don Hopper packed his bags and walked away from the problems of Alabama’s Black Belt. But he did walk away.

For five years, Hopper served as executive director of the Dallas County Economic Development Authority. He spent those years trying to convince industries around the nation, and the world, that Alabama’s Black Belt had the workforce and infrastructure to support big business.

Even Hopper will admit he had a hard time. Sure, there were success stories like a business incubator, an industrial laundry facility and a wood-product business that opened. But every time the unemployment numbers came across Hopper’s desk, reality trumped ideology. From 1998-2002, unemployment numbers decreased only once &045;&045; in 2002. Meanwhile, during a time when the rest of the nation’s economy grew, the economy in Hopper’s county remained stagnant, at best.

Why? Why is it that all of West Alabama and the Black Belt can’t seem to escape from an iron curtain of economic repression?

For many, the answer is simple: transportation.

Earlier this year, the Alabama Education Association interviewed residents in Marengo, Perry, Greene, Hale and Sumter counties. In that survey &045;&045; designed to measure the contentment of residents in this region &045;&045; respondents said there were three major problems.

First, they obviously said lack of jobs and industries makes life difficult here. After that, the highest ranking "problem area" for the Black Belt was transportation.

If you don’t believe the survey, just ask Hopper.

Almost two years ago, Hopper left Dallas County to head the industrial recruiting agency for Calhoun County in Anniston. His new job has a set of challenges all its own &045;&045; like chemicals buried in the ground. But Hopper still gets more looks in his city because of Interstate 20 and location.

So if you know the problem…

For all of West Alabama, transportation isn’t the entire problem. In Sumter and Greene counties, there is an interstate. But without any sort of four-lane route that moves East to West through the middle of Alabama, transportation still sends most big industries packing.

One look at economic surveys makes it clear people in this region know transportation hampers the ability to recruit major employers. But does anybody else know? Absolutely.

Jamie Wallace, who has worked in economic development in the Black Belt for more than a decade, began his working career as a news reporter in Selma.

Wallace quickly will tell the story of the first meeting he ever attended on a plan to completely four-lane U.S. Highway 80. He’ll talk about that early 1960s meeting and recall the vivid discussions on how U.S. 80 stretches all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He also talks about the only section of U.S. 80 that isn’t four-laned &045;&045; 22 miles in Marengo and Sumter counties and seven miles in Uniontown.

For more than four decades, state officials have discussed the transportation problems in the Black Belt. More specifically, they’ve talked about U.S. 80. The Alabama Department of Transportation has put the four-laning project on the state’s five-year plan plenty of times.

If state and federal leaders said there was no opportunity for getting U.S. 80 four-laned, that would be one thing. What frustrates residents in West Alabama and the Black Belt, however, is the shower of political promises made every four years or so.

During former Gov. Don Siegelman’s administration, Black Belt residents saw plenty of the Democratic governor. During meetings in Selma and Uniontown, Siegelman had a saying he repeated numerous times.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby also has taken numerous opportunities to talk about an East-West route through Alabama.

Almost three years ago, Shelby visited the Black Belt and proposed the idea of extending I-85 from Montgomery to Meridian, Miss. Later that year, Shelby helped pass $5 million through the U.S. Transportation Appropriations budget that began a corridor study of extending I-85. Last year, Shelby added another $3 million to continue the study.

In all, the $8 million appropriated to study I-85 has been used to pinpoint what route I-85 would take through this economically distressed area of Alabama. Today, there is little, if any, talk about an extension of I-85, and even if the project received more funding, it would take decades to see the completion and reap the rewards of such a project.

More important to this region is the four-laning of U.S. 80, and current Gov. Bob Riley has spent the first 11 months of his administration trying to fund essential services like education and public safety.

That doesn’t mean Riley is nave to the transportation needs of this area. During his campaign last year, Riley discussed the extension of I-85, which he dubbed a "West Alabama

Freeway."

Riley also hinted that he knew the importance of road expansion in this part of Alabama.

So they do know

What’s obvious about the transportation concern in West Alabama and the Black Belt is that those public officials who actually can make a difference and order a project to begin won’t do it. But why?

In a nutshell, that’s the explanation most economic developers in West Alabama will give about the lack of transportation improvements.

Ever since politicians learned that paving roads made constituents happy, they’ve used their elected muscles to improve transportation in high concentration areas where they can earn the most political support from the people who put them in office.

If that’s the case, Alabama’s Black Belt may never progress, and it makes Riggs a bit more than peeved.

As long as transportation projects get put on the back-burner in Montgomery and Washington, D.C., Riggs’ assumption of how politicians view rural areas may always remain the same. Without adequate four-laned roads into this region of Alabama, the people like Hopper in Calhoun County always will get "more looks."