2-17 edit

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 20, 2004

During his appearance in West Alabama counties over the past month, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., received the same sort of questions.

Veterans asked about adequate coverage; medical professionals asked about Medicare and Medicaid; bankers asked about the increasing trade deficit.

Though many were specific in their requests of the Senator, most groups assembled to hear Shelby asked one question with a consensus of sincerity:

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“What about our roads?” we all asked.

Shelby, in what likely has become a defense mechanism to the thousands of repeated questions he receives, answered the transportation question without ever really answering it.

“Let me show you what we’ve accomplished,” Shelby said.

Then he held up a graphic explaining the increased transportation money Alabama has received since he became head of the transportation appropriations subcommittee. Indeed, those numbers are staggering. This year, our state will receive close to $600 million for road projects.

But to the people of West Alabama, those numbers mean very little — especially when U.S. Highway 80 and Highway 43 haven’t been four-laned.

Still, when asked about the future of transportation projects, Shelby always diverted the hard question with the easy answer: “Let me show you what we’ve accomplished,” he’d say, citing the exceptional pace of the Corridor X project that will connect Birmingham to Memphis.

Most times, Shelby wished to discuss the improvements in Alabama’s transportation system as a whole rather than the deficiencies of the transportation system in West Alabama.

Then, during his stop in Demopolis, Shelby finally hinted that he understood the question — and the concern — of this region.

“We’ve got to take these things one step at a time,” the Senator said. “I’m going to get it done, though.”

Most who heard Shelby’s speech left with little comfort over the immediate needs of transportation. But as Shelby has developed a powerful voice in Washington, D.C., the Senator from Tuscaloosa demonstrated last week why Alabama citizens — including those in West Alabama — have such a friend in our nation’s Capitol.

On Friday, the U.S. Senate passed a piece of legislation that could bring $80 million each year to develop the transportation systems of the “Delta Region.” That region — as defined on the federal level — includes Marengo, Sumter, Greene, Hale and Perry counties.

More than three years ago, Shelby pushed to include our counties as members of the Delta Regional Authority, and he succeeded. Now, it looks like Shelby has won another victory for people in this region.

It’s impossible to tell what impact this $80 million could have on West Alabama — the legislations still has not passed the U.S. House of Representatives. Shelby will work hard to get his project passed through Congress, and he likely will succeed.

What citizens in West Alabama — and the entire state — must realize is that Shelby’s role is to secure funding for our road projects. And yet again, he apparently has come through for us.

Now, it’s up to the Alabama Department of Transportation to take what Shelby brings in and use it wisely. Shelby has little direct control over ALDOT, and some say his relationship with the agency is strained because of projects that have not been completed.

As citizens of this region, we must demand that our state government take a keen interest in the continued progress of our road systems. We must do so by voting, writing letters and making phone calls to Montgomery. Every chance we get, we must continue shining the light on a region of the state that sorely needs a new lamp.