Few care about our greatest need

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Government officials, we warn ahead of time, must excuse what may be perceived as a lack of respect. In reality, we mean no disrespect to the men and women who represent West Alabama and the Black Belt.

Wait. Maybe that’s the problem. The men and women who represent West Alabama and the Black Belt in Montgomery and Washington, D.C., apparently have tripped over a “Workers Present” sign along one of Alabama’s many interstate and highway expansion projects.

Wait. Maybe our elected officials haven’t fallen. Maybe they’ve been blinded by the flashing bulbs during the glamorous vote-getting photo ops at the ribbon cuttings along Alabama’s many interstate and highway expansion projects.

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Whatever the excuse, something has gone horribly wrong for West Alabama and the Black Belt yet again. And just like the worn punching back in the back of a dark gymnasium, the citizens of our region will once again shrug our shoulders and smirk at our inability to locate a single state or federal official who has serious intentions of improving the economic and social disorders of our region.

This week, the good folks of West Alabama and the Black Belt have been informed that plans to widen U.S. Highway 80 from Marengo County through Sumter County have been delayed once again. Earlier this year, local officials were told that bids for the first phase of the project would be let in November 2004.

Now, we’ve been told that the environmental microscope of the federal government has found a couple of issues along the right-of-way, which means the project will be delayed until February 2005.

We really shouldn’t be surprised. We won’t be surprised when, in December or January, we call the Alabama Department of Transportation for an update on the highway expansion and learn that one of the bulldozers scheduled for use in the project has overheated and can’t be used until January 2006.

For citizens in West Alabama and the Black Belt, state and federal officials have compounded our absolute disgust with “the process.” If plans for widening U.S. 80 have been discussed since the 1960s, why in the world did we just find out about an “environmental issue” in the summer of 2004? If government officials have ever had an ounce of intention to see this project through, why won’t residents of this region bat an eye when they discover the U.S. 80 project has been delayed again?

Here’s the reason: Of all the things citizens of West Alabama and the Black Belt can control, highway construction is not among them. We can’t design a bridge or measure the correct amount of dirt needed to level the highway.

If we could, we would have given up on our government around the same time Neil Armstrong returned from his 1969 walk on the moon.

Instead, we’re left to sit on our hands and grind our teeth just a bit harder every time government tells us they have delayed the single-most important economic project in West Alabama.

What’s even more nauseating is the apparent lack of organization in our highway department. Over the course of about six months, the Alabama Department of Transportation has done nothing but confuse the leaders of our region by spouting off date after date that this project will begin. In a sense, it would ease our aspirations of growth if ALDOT would just tell us to get lost.

We’ve publicly called on U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, Gov. Bob Riley, and a host of state political leaders to help push the U.S. 80 project through Montgomery.

Now we’ve realized that West Alabama and the Black Belt just don’t have enough votes to gain the attentive ear of any formidable politician in terms of highway construction.

Because of that, we call on anyone and everyone to become part of the unrelenting need this region has for the expansion of U.S. 80.

We ask state publications like The Birmingham News, the Mobile Register, the Montgomery Advertiser, and The Tuscaloosa News to dedicate a small space on your editorial page to this issue.

In the past decade, an entirely new interstate – Corridor X – has nearly been constructed from Memphis to Birmingham; almost all of Interstate 20/59 from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham has been widened from two to three lanes.

In the past five decades, the people of West Alabama and the Black Belt can’t get 22 miles of a United States Highway four-laned.

Can anyone tell us why?

Is there anyone else who can help us find an answer?