Black Belt to see big bucks

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 23, 2004

WASHINGTON D.C. – During each of his stops through West Alabama earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby assured residents that he was serious about improving transportation in this region.

This weekend, Shelby’s assurances took a $40 million step toward reality.

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed a series of spending bills Saturday night, which includes $15 million for the “realignment and reconstruction” of an interstate corridor between Montgomery and Cuba.

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That’s not the only transportation money Shelby secured for this region of the state, though.

In a separate section of the bill, the Delta Region Transportation Development Program will receive $25 million for transportation projects in counties covered by the Delta Regional Authority. Marengo, Hale, Greene, Sumter and Perry counties are all part of the DRA.

“The link between the transportation infrastructure and economic development is unmistakable,” Shelby said of the bill, which President Bush is expected to sign this week. “Establishing a transportation program specifically for the Delta Region is an integral step towards promoting economic development, raising the standard of living, and improving quality of life in this traditionally impoverished region.”

For nearly three years, Shelby has discussed plans to connect Interstate 85 from Montgomery to Interstate 59/20 in Cuba near the Mississippi state line. The idea first came about at a town hall meeting in Selma in 2001.

Soon after that meeting, Shelby announced a $3 million appropriation to fund a “corridor study.” In Fiscal Year 2003, Shelby ordered another $500,000 be allotted to continuing the interstate project, and after a year’s absence, Shelby has nearly quintupled the amount of money directed toward an interstate through Alabama’s most economically distressed area.

According to Tony Harris, an executive assistant to Alabama Department of Transportation Director Joe McInnes, the appropriation of $15 million from the federal government isn’t ready to be spent quite yet.

“Right now, the state is still engaged in the studies that need to be done for the corridor,” Harris said Monday morning. “We still have to look at the environmental impact and the route [the corridor] needs to take.”

Once those studies are completed, Harris said, then ALDOT can begin field surveys.

“It will take at least two more years,” he said of the studies. “After that, people will start to see some progress.”

Virginia Davis, Shelby’s press secretary, said the senator is committed to fulfilling his pledge to Black Belt residents.

“He wants to move this project forward, and this is a big step toward that,” Davis said.

Along with the $15 million appropriated strictly for the I-85 corridor, Shelby also helped secure another $25 million to be used for transportation needs across the Delta region – which includes this area of Alabama.

Dr. Lillie Fears, head of communication for the Delta Regional Authority, was unaware of the appropriation early Monday morning. However, she later said the Congressional appropriation was not directly tied to the DRA, based in Mississippi.

According the Shelby, a relatively new transportation program was authorized earlier this year in the Senate’s Highway Authorization bill.

“I have long advocated for the construction of an East-West Corridor across Alabama, and I believe that the $15 million that we have included in this legislation, coupled with the funding opportunities that will be provided by the Delta Region Transportation Development Program are essential to bring economic growth and opportunity to these communities,” he said.

Shelby serves as chairman of the transportation appropriation subcommittee in the U.S. Senate.

Coming tomorrow: What $15 million will do to spur construction of an interstate through West Alabama.