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Shelby has eye on big road project

Politicians, especially at the federal level, enjoy making their points with the help of some visual aids. U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby stayed the course Saturday during his visit to Demopolis.

The colorful chart detailed how much transportation money Shelby has brought into this state from Washington, D.C. In 1997, he brought almost $200 million to Alabama to begin the process of improving this state’s major roadways. This year — seven years later — Shelby has secured almost $600 million that will pave nothing in Marengo County.

“We can’t do everything at once,” Shelby said. “But one day, real soon, we’re going to get I-85 across this area.”

During most of his conversation with nearly 50 people who attended Shelby’s town hall meeting at Bryan Whitfield Memorial Hospital, the high-ranking senator spelled out everything from his stance on the war in Iraq to his displeasure with CIA Director George Tenet — “I’m not very fond of him,” Shelby said.

His reason for holding the annual town hall meeting was to hear the issues important to citizens in Marengo County. And Shelby jumped the gun on the most important issue.

“Transportation is very important here. I know that,” he said. “People want to move goods from their plants, and you need an interstate to do that.”

Three years ago, Shelby first broached the subject of extending I-85 from Montgomery to Meridian, Miss., during a similar town hall meeting in Selma. The news spread quickly to communities like Demopolis, where the interstate extension would be built. And after excitement grew in the cities between Montgomery and Meridian, Shelby decided to allocate some money toward that study.

“We got money to begin the corridor study,” he said. “Now, I’m looking to jump start that project.”

When that will happen, Shelby could not say. Instead, he spent a good deal of time explaining the importance of another interstate project he spearheaded — Corridor X, which will connect Birmingham to Memphis with Interstate 22.

While Shelby said that project would change northwest Alabama forever, he said the same would happen to West Alabama if I-85 is ever completed.

In the mean time, most officials believe completing the four-laning of U.S. Highway 80 and Highway 43 is of more immediate concern for Marengo County.

Shelby insisted he knew the importance of those two roadways, but refocused the discussion on I-85. When asked specifically on U.S. 80, Shelby said he knew the Alabama Department of Transportation had halted work on most of that project.

“I know it,” he said.

However, Shelby did not indicate what could be done to revitalize a road construction project that could open West Alabama to new industries.

Currently, there are 22 miles of U.S. 80 between Demopolis and Cuba that have not been four-laned. According to ALDOT, some of that project will be completed in the next five years, though not all of it. Completing the seven mile stretch of U.S. 80 in Uniontown that has not been four-laned has been dropped from ALDOT’s 5-year plan, according to state officials.